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!

The Martian Revolution: Part 3 of 4

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Continued from Part 2.

Part Three: Sacrifices

The Cell

Meteor Mags awoke in pitch blackness and felt herself for injuries. She discovered every item of her clothing had been removed. The tape around her ribs was gone. She touched one ear lobe then clasped a hand to her chest, just below the neckline. Her fist closed on nothing. Even her jewelry was gone.

“Son of a bitch!”

Reflexively, she put one finger to the bridge of her nose to adjust her glasses. They were gone, too.

“Fuck me dead.”

The phone stashed in her bra, the knives strapped to her calves and forearms, three small-caliber pistols hidden along her curves, and the circuitry in her jewelry—all of it gone. No way to contact Tarzi, no way to summon her ship. No way to—

“Where the hell is Patches?!”

Mags comforted herself by turning her ring around her finger, then holding it in place. “The only way they’d take you is by chopping off my goddamn finger.” She considered the fact. “Shondra must have strip-searched me. Rosie would have definitely chopped the finger. That fucking whore.”

Mags cradled her forehead in one palm and shook her head. “I can’t believe I trusted that cow!” She sobbed once, and again, then filed away the emotion to be reviewed later—or maybe never. Mags pulled herself to her feet and slumped against a brick wall that offered all the warmth of a glacier. “Shondra,” she said, “what’s your game?”

She smacked the wall with her open palm, made a fist, and shook it in the darkness. “You cunts! If you hurt Tarzi, I will end you! Do you fucking hear me?!”

No one answered.

In a darkness where not even her catlike eyes could gather light, Mags began running her fingers over every centimeter of the enclosure. She pressed her nose to within a millimeter of the surface, seeking any scent she could find. At first, the only sounds her ears picked up were the pulse of her heart, the flow of her breath, and the barely perceptible padding of the balls of her feet as she made her way around the room. Beyond that, past the edge of human hearing, the electromagnetic hum of her prison whispered to her above the dull roar of the city.

She felt her way around the frame of the only exit. Her side of the door held no hinges and no hint of the locking mechanism. Just a slab.

By her estimation, to claw through the miniscule crevice around the edge of the door and pry it open might take two-hundred years—assuming they fed her enough calcium to keep her nails growing.

If they didn’t give her food or water at all? No more than ninety-six hours before total, catastrophic organ failure. For cats, at least.

“Fuck.” Mags abandoned her probing and sat cross-legged on the floor. She pressed her palms together and the tip of each finger to its opposite. She tried to focus on Sarah. “Angel, can you hear me?”

She reached only silence.

“Octos? Are you there?”

Nothing.

“Pick up!”

Still nothing.

“Unreliable sons of bitches!

Immediately, she felt bad for saying it. She was, after all, one of their three mothers.[1] No one understood more than Mags that sometimes a person, or a fucked-up mutant cat hybrid type of person, or even a cephalopodic groupmind needed to wander off for a bit without being disturbed. “Sorry, babies. But if you get this message, call me. Shit just hit the fan on Mars.”

While she waited, Mags cursed the unresponsive door until she was hoarse. Then, like any sensible feline, she curled in the corner for a nap. Her stream of consciousness became non-verbal. Something like a movie made of emotions, memories, and fantasies played in her mind.

One eye remained half open. In her sleep, her ears twitched, alert as radar dishes—searching, hoping for a signal.

☠️

The Basement

Through a pair of metal doors, Shondra burst into the garage below the ground level of Tarzi’s prison. She ran down a concrete ramp. “Get ready to roll!”

Twelve of her elite awaited her. They snapped to attention and disappeared, four at a time, into three armored vehicles arranged in a line like a convoy. Only Shondra’s driver remained outside her vehicle, saluting.

Shondra shouted, “Let’s go!”

“We got a problem, boss!” Despite her warning, the driver obeyed Shondra’s command, climbing into her seat and starting the engine.

“Make it quick!”

“All the blocks from here to prisoner extradition are a fucking war zone. The radio’s lit up with reports of fires and buildings collapsing in the streets. There’s no guarantee we can get through.”

“Fine,” said Shondra. “We do it anyway. We have a political prisoner to free, and a couple of flaming speedbumps are the least of our worries. Move out!”

The driver gave the order.

Powerful engines built in the finest shipyard in the solar system roared to life. The convoy sped to the garage exit. The wide metal door, half a meter thick, raised at a coded electronic signal from Shondra’s driver.

Here we come, kitty. Shondra opened a panel on the dashboard, found a box of ammunition, and began refilling her empty magazines. Hang on.

As Shondra’s vehicle reached the exit, a blast with the light of the sun pulverized the wall above the garage door. Stone and cinder block pelted the transport in a torrential sheet so dense it stopped the forward motion and buried Shondra alive, along with everyone else inside.

She gripped her driver by the shoulder and shook the senseless body. Blood ran from its forehead. “Damn it!” Shondra lowered the window on her side. An avalanche of dust and rubble poured into her face, onto her lap, and down around her feet.

Shondra choked and coughed. To the survivors in the back seat, she shouted, “What the hell are you waiting for? Dig!”

Sunset came to Mars. It gilded the stone above Shondra’s crew with a fiery glow before vanishing into blackness. By the time the crew got free and dug out the lead vehicle, Shondra was far too late to save Mags.

☠️

The Captain

“Passengers of Tycho Airlines, flight two thirty-six, this is your captain speaking. Thank you for joining us this evening. We’re on the final approach to the city of Hevelius. Please stow all carry-on items in the overhead bins or beneath your seats and return your seats to their upright positions.

“We’ll be encountering a bit of social unrest on the ground. We have reports of mass looting, urban riots, and armed insurrection. I see—fires. Fires everywhere. What the—

“Folks, we don’t know for sure what’s happening, but please remain calm. Flight attendants will come by in just a second to collect your—

“What the fuck? Is that a rocket from the surface? It’s coming right at us! Mayday! Mayday! Two thirty-six to tower, requesting emergency—

“Get the hell off me and fly, motherfucker! Mayday!

“What? My mic is still on?”

☠️

The Station

Oblivious to her trajectory, an unconscious Patches smashed into an airplane. Her body punctured the hull, and the collision killed everyone aboard—some upon impact, some who were sucked out of the plane into the sky, and others when the wreckage screamed down to the ground and exploded.

Members of Patches’ human crew had called her a living weapon. But they had never seen her become a lifeless projectile, nor imagined the damage she could do in that state.

Patches would never know about the plane, but it slowed her ascent. She reached the apex of a graceful arc, fell under the spell of artificial Martian gravity, and rocketed back to the surface.

Hevelius was the largest city on Mars. Where Patches landed was a matter of luck. She could have crashed into multi-family housing, or the commercial district, or a park. Instead, she plummeted into a power station.

The force of impact shattered the generators’ metal housings and sent a fiery sphere of shrapnel expanding in every direction. It destroyed a city block and shut off the power to dozens of neighborhoods.

In the crater, a web of electrical wires still connected to subterranean backup generators cradled Patches. Where the explosion severed them, arcs of lightning sprang to life, crackling white, outlined in blue. The energy leapt across her fur, overcame its carbon-based resistance, and lit up the calico cat from the inside.

The surrounding neighborhood was fortunate that annihilation came first, because the caterwaul Patches unleashed would have made a grown person wish for death. Nothing of its kind had been heard on Mars nor anywhere else in the solar system.

A ball of lightning held Patches in its center. Her body levitated as she screamed, and all her mental faculties and her heartbeat clawed at the door of oblivion. Her neurons fired erratic signals. She convulsed in the air with her eyes as wide as two black planets in twin halos of green, and her limbs thrashed like swords in a cyclone without sense or reason.

Circuit breakers kicked in. The lightning ended. Patches fell through the cables and tumbled into the crater’s dark heart.

She landed on her feet.

From Patches’ point of view, Rosalia’s betrayal took place only a second before. Fresh hate filled her heart. Patches scrambled to the surface, leaping from one dead wire to the next, sinking her claws into plastic sheathing, relentless and unstoppable.

When she got to the surface, she ran a paw twice over one ear. For a golden moment, she allowed the sunset to grace her whiskers. Then she broke into a run.

The fading sun cast a rusty orange glow in the final moments before dusk. It drew a cat-shaped shadow on the streets. The shadow turned into a blur and vanished into the complex crevices of Hevelius.

☠️

The Subway

Patches rubbed her cheeks against a building’s corner—first one cheek then the other with increasing intensity until the flesh beneath her fluff smashed into the brick. To an outside observer, the ritual would have looked painful, but Patches loved it.

Pain had not troubled Patches since July 2029. Back then, on the brink of death, she awoke in a tank of bubbling energy that channeled the entire power of a planet-sized moon into her.[2]

She had neither requested nor desired that fate, but it was hers, and she accepted it. What did any cat need to deal with but the present moment?

She never mourned the absence of pain. If Patches had been born as any mammal except a cat, she might have found a reason to be thankful she could still feel pleasure.

But rather than feel grateful, Patches assumed that pleasure was her due, that objects and sentients who brought her pleasure simply did what the universe had declared to be her birthright, and no one should take those pleasures from her.

Patches worked herself into a frenzy, biting the spot she scented with the glands in her face, standing on her hind legs to carve long gouges with her foreclaws. All around her, war blossomed into being.

Looters plundered Hevelius. A rocket launcher turned a storefront into a fireball. Lights and gunfire and propeller noise from overhead battled small-arms fire, Molotov cocktails, and chanting, surging crowds. Bodies in Port Authority uniforms, ship-builder’s gear, and makeshift guerilla outfits fell from windows and dropped from aircraft. Mutilated corpses littered the streets.

No matter.

War, as far as Patches could discern, was humanity’s natural state. She assessed the tableau of destruction and suffering. She might as well have been observing a cloud or the erratic motions of a butterfly in the wind. They were not things she could affect nor cared to, merely natural objects to be avoided on the way to her purpose.

Patches folded back her ears and ran at top speed through the chaos. The buses had stopped running, but many trains still ran. Patches followed the signs to a platform underground. She had only three seconds to study the subterranean maps before an explosion from above shook the station.

Chunks of the collapsing ceiling fell around her. The dust rendered everything invisible—everything but the light of an oncoming train.

Seeing the station falling to pieces, the train’s engineer decided to skip it and keep moving. The train smashed debris to the sides, denting its hull and sending up a shower of sparks and flame as metal and stone crashed together against the sides of the tunnel.

Patches waited at the edge of the platform, but the train did not stop. Her eyes narrowed to slits in the incoherent light and murky dust clouds. As the train sped past, she launched herself, dug her claws into its metal exterior, and held on.

The tunnel walls slammed past her. She pulled herself closer to the hull. In the narrowest of passages, her indestructible hair and spine carved a groove into the concrete wall. Darkness swallowed her and the steel monster she rode, but she held fast.

Unseen from her underground vantage point, towers sprang onto the horizon: the Port Authority building where she had been captured, the surrounding structures which made up its prisons, and—though Patches did not yet know it—the communications hub that would be Tarzi’s destination.

Once the train passed the obliteration of the station where Patches boarded, she focused on the station markers. The train stopped at none of them and continued its frightful course without regard for a schedule. Patches chattered. The wind whipped away her voice. When she saw the stop for the Port Authority buildings approaching, she prepared to jump.

She hit the ground on all fours, but the momentum rolled her head-over-heels until she smashed into a monolith. Upon its surface were engraved three large words: Port Authority Administration. Patches arched her back, bared her teeth, and hissed.

She sniffed the ground for Mags’ scent in an ever-widening circle until she picked up the trail. She picked up Tarzi’s, too.

Patches had never known the love of biological brothers and sisters. At birth, she was separated from the other kittens in her litter. But to the extent that she realized Mags thought of her as a cub, then Tarzi must also be Mags’ cub. That meant they were nestmates, cubs from the same litter.

She lost his trail. It led away from the Port Authority building then vanished into the unknown.

But Mags’ scent was as plain as day.

Patches licked a paw between each of its claws. She weighed Tarzi’s life against every living being—human or otherwise—on Mars. Three times, she ran the paw over one ear.

She made her decision. If anything bad had happened to Tarzi, Patches intended to soak the red planet in the blood of her enemies until it drowned.

Some sins could never be forgiven. Some things broke so badly they could never be fixed. But Patches anticipated some small satisfaction to be gleaned from murdering every last person who had fucked things up.

She knew Mags would feel the same way.

Such were the thoughts of a rather large and fluffy calico cat as she followed her best friend’s trail and pondered the fate of a faithless planet.

☠️

The Door

Mags’ captors had not imprisoned her in the same building as Tarzi. Her impregnable cell occupied a ten-story monolith near the spaceport favored by visiting officials from Earth. It was a convenient location for the Port Authority to hold those prisoners who required extradition to Earth for legal or political reasons.

The criminals inside could only hope for one of two ways out: deportation or death. No one had ever broken into the prison. No one had ever escaped.

No one had ever told Patches.

All through the prison’s hallways, alarms blared like klaxons and flashed lights from their perches on the walls. Along one path through the facility, a stream of blood spread until it met the walls and pooled at their edges. At the head of the crimson river ran an especially purposeful cat.

Mags awoke to the screech of tortured metal. She sprang to her feet. Every hair on her body stood straight up.

Like nails on a steel chalkboard, Patches’ claws tore at the cell’s metal door from the outside.

After the initial shock, Mags pounded on the door. She could not see nor smell her kitten, but she knew. She shouted, “Patches!”

A howling whirlwind scaled the door and ripped apart its lock and hinges. They fell like dead birds to the prison floor. Their gleaming reflections caught Patches’ eyes, and she pounced on them.

She sprang away as the steel slab flew from its frame, over her head, and down the hallway. It slammed to a stop against a wall. From the empty doorway, Mags’ naked left leg extended, parallel to the floor.

“Motherfuckers!”

Patches sauntered to Mags’ side, rubbed against the leg planted firmly on the floor, and arched her tail. She sought Mags’ eyes and mewed.

“Baby kitty!” Mags scooped her calico into the cradle of her arms and rubbed her face into mounds of fluff. She listened as Patches rapidly chattered about her adventures across the Martian landscape.

“You did great, kitten. Where’s Tarzi?”

Patches told everything she knew.

“I have an idea where he’s headed. Did you kill anyone my size?”

Carrying her cat, Mags followed the trail of blood that led to her cell. She inspected the leaking bodies one-by-one until she found a reasonable match. She set down Patches and stripped clothing from a corpse. “One thing I love about the Port Authority,” she said. “They hire a lot of women. This one’s almost my size.”

Mags dressed in a dead woman’s clothes and tugged them into place where they didn’t quite cover her generous curves. Blood and gashes ripped by Patches’ claws marred the grey, woolen cloth. Mags struck a pose. “How do I look?”

She purred at the response. “Then it’s just you and me.” Mags plundered the dead for weapons and ammo. Racking a bullet into a stolen pistol’s chamber, she said, “That’s more like it. Let’s descend into the maelstrom.” [3]

They set off to find Tarzi and racked up a double-digit body count along the way. Thirty minutes later, smudged with soot and rust-colored dust, splattered with blood and bits of strangers’ organs, they arrived at the base of the communications hub.

Tarzi’s scent told them they had found the right destination.

☠️

The Bargain

Tarzi hoped to meet Mags at the hub. Instead, he confronted Rosie and her elite personal bodyguards, all heavily armed. The young man withdrew around the doorframe and shouted. “Don’t shoot! It’s me, Tarzi!”

They shot anyway.

“Will you bloody stop and listen for a minute? Rosie!”

She shouted back. “What do you want?!”

“I want to help,” said Tarzi. “I want to help you take over Mars.”

“I already have. Get lost!”

“Not even close. You need me. I’ve been on the streets, and this whole thing is turning into a disaster! It’s a disaster I can help you with. But,” said Tarzi, “the whole deal is contingent on freeing Mags.”

Rosie said, “Not a chance.”

“You can’t send Mags to her death and expect any of this to work. The riots aren’t shit. You’re asking for all-out war with Ceres and every outlaw in the Belt—without much help from Earth.”

“We can handle a few pirates.”

“Not these ones. And definitely not Patches.”

Rosie shouted, “Your little cat is gone! Don’t be stupid.”

“If you think you got rid of Patches that easily, you’re so fucked in the head that your IQ might go up when she eats your skull. You should be crapping your pants right now, wondering how soon it will be until she—”

“Tarzi! If I set Mags free, the first thing she would do is come to kill me. She isn’t one to forgive and forget.”

“She’ll never do either. She’ll never agree with you about your deal with Earth. She will hate you ’til the day she dies.”

“That makes me feel a whole lot better. She stays locked up.”

“Rosie, Mags hates the idea on principle. She likes to talk real loud and make a scene about her ideals. But if you show her a profit opportunity, all that goes out the window. You will never have her love. But you can appeal to her greed.”

“Why would I give her anything?”

“The free-energy system. She wants it. You need it. It’s a bargain.”

“I’ll get Shondra to make it.”

“The fuck you will,” said Tarzi. “Who do you think let me out of my cell?”

“What?”

“Shondra hates your fucking guts. She sent me here! Shondra plans to kill you and take over. If you want the energy system, you need Mags.”

Rosie pondered.

Tarzi pounced on the silence. “You want the economic boost from trading with Earth. But if you can provide free, unlimited power to any rock you want, think what that means for the future of mining and manufacturing! If you let Mags do this one little thing she really, really wants to do, then you create a space-based economy with unlimited resource potential. Do you want to rule Mars, or do you want to rule the entire bloody solar system?”

“She’ll still want to kill me.”

“Undoubtedly.”

Rosie said, “Will you talk to her?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! What do you plan to say to Mags to convince her to go along with this plan of yours?”

Tarzi paused. “Let me think for a minute.”

He seized the lull in conversation. Tarzi slowed his breathing and imagined his favorite Swans album playing at top volume.[4] The brutal rhythms calmed him. Time stretched out. In what would look like a blur to the human eye, he stepped into the room with his pistol raised and put a bullet into the helmet of the nearest guard.

The guard’s head snapped back in slow motion. Individual bits of shrapnel and drops of blood began to break away from the helmet. The fragments and splatters barely expanded before Tarzi fixed the next guard in his sights. He fired again. A bullet pierced the second guard’s faceplate. Tarzi shot a third time.

Rosalia and her remaining guards pulled their triggers. Millimeter by millimeter, fingers squeezed. Bullets entered the air and slowly, deliberately, advanced on paths to where Tarzi no longer stood.

He dove for cover, but not before he sent one more bullet to its destination.


[1] The octopuses’ biological mother was an octopus also, but because Mags and Patches were present for their birth and merged minds with them and their mother, the octopuses consider the felonious felines to also be their mothers.

[2] In Patches the Immortal.

[3] Mags quotes a song title that belongs to both Radio Birdman and Wo Fat.

[4] The Glowing Man, by Swans.

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.

The Martian Revolution: Part 2 of 4

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Continued from Part 1.

Part Two: Knight’s Journey

The Torture

Tarzi.

Handcuffs bound me. Two goons in grey shoved me down and shackled my ankles to a metal chair that was bolted to the floor below a single incandescent bulb. The room smelled like piss and puke. A single vent the size of a postcard near the ceiling had given up on moving the air. Blotches and splatters of dried blood decorated the walls. To one side, a stainless-steel tool chest with a dozen drawers held contents I preferred not to imagine.

Shondra dismissed the soldiers with orders to guard the thick metal door, shut it behind them, and rested her bum against the tool chest. She raised one eyebrow as if my silent glare amused her. “This is one of the places where the Port Authority deals with pirates.” She lit up a smoke, took a drag, and held it out to me. “Have you met any pirates?”

The offered cig repulsed me. Not the smell of smoke. Just the offering. I spat on the floor. “Mags will fucking kill you.”

Shondra threw back her head and laughed. “She might!” Then she leaned in closer. Her eyes drilled into me. “Your precious Mags is a psychotic bitch from hell.[1] A murderous ball of boundless rage. And you know what?” Shondra ran a hand between her thighs and shivered. “It’s one of the things about her that turns me on. Not to mention that frisky tail. The way she paints her lips in red and black. Maybe she’ll smother me to death in her massive titties. Would that make you happy?”

“Sod off, slag. You are sick in the head.”

“Tarzi, you don’t know the half of it. Take this fag before I smoke it myself.”

What the hell. If I was about to die, I might as well have a smoke.

No sooner did I have it in my cuffed hands than she lit another. She said, “You don’t like me very much.”

“Fuck no I don’t. I’ll like you less when you’re torturing me to death. So let’s get it over with, you scab-faced, knob-gobbling, herpes magnet!”

Shondra looked around the room as if she were noticing it for the first time. “Is that why you think you’re here?”

I blew smoke at her. “Fuck you.”

She brushed ebony curls away from her face. “Such fire! No wonder Mags likes you. She tells me wonderful things about her favorite nephew, did you know that?”

When I didn’t answer, she continued. “Have it your way, then. I will show you the implement of pain I’m about to use on you. And I promise you, Tarzi, after the twisted shit I do to you with it, you will beg to cooperate.”

I expected her to open the drawers of the torture toolbox. Instead, she slid her hand into her pocket and withdrew a single object.

“This key,” she said, “unlocks those cuffs and leg irons.” She rested her other hand on the pistol at her hip. “And this nine-millimeter will send you to an early grave if you try to fight me. I suggest you relax. There are some things you don’t know, and we need to have a little chat. A meeting of the minds. Got it?”

“Not in the slightest,” I said. “You want to let me go?”

“Not until you listen to me. But I think you’d be more inclined to listen if you weren’t chained to that goddamn chair.”

I held up my hands. “Fine.” Maybe I could have tried to meditate deep enough in that moment to slow my perception and grab her pistol, then put it to her head before she realized what was happening. But that solution left me with a locked door and guards on the other side, and no clue about the building’s entrances and exits. I decided to listen.

Shondra unlocked the shackles then the cuffs, though she held her pistol to my temple for the latter. She stepped away, out of range of my fists, and holstered it.

I let the fag dangle from my lips while I rubbed my wrists. “What’s this all about, then?”

“Rosie’s got big plans for Mars. I’ve played along to protect my interests. But the truth is: Mags is right. Fuck Earth and fuck the mega-corps. I hate them all. We don’t need them sinking their fangs any deeper here. We need to cut them off. Stake them in their goddamn hearts like vampires. Now is the time for a truly independent Mars. Don’t you agree?”

I dropped the fag end on the floor and ground it out with my heel. “I do. Keep talking.”

“Rosie’s been good to you, and she’s been good to me. She’s been good to Mags, too, in her own way—at least until today. But that sly cunt will be good to anyone so long as it advances her goals. When they’ve outlived their usefulness, they can kiss their arses goodbye.”

“You’re trying to tell me you’re any different?”

“Tarzi, Tarzi, Tarzi. Do you think Mags is any different?”

We locked eyes. As angry as I was with Shondra, I could see what Mags found attractive about her. Not just on the surface, but the way her eyes glistened with amusement and a savage confidence that the entire universe, including me, was her plaything—a toy to bring her pleasure. It was a quality I’d seen a million times in Mags’ eyes, and Patches’, too. A feline view of life.

I said, “Mags is different. She has an agenda, but it isn’t all about her. It’s about her friends.”

Shondra applauded. “You are so perceptive for a little boy!”

“I’m not a little boy, you fucking hose-beast, and you know what? This is the shittiest way I can think of to spend my sixteenth birthday. Get to the point!”

Shondra laughed. “Happy Birthday!” She looked me up and down like a piece of meat in a market. “Mags would never forgive me if I gave you birthday spankings. But come see me in a couple years, and I might blow out your candle.”

She set her hands on one arm of my chair and leaned in until her face almost touched mine. Her perfume smelled like sandalwood and tobacco. Underneath ran her natural scent, a hint of sweat and engine oil. I could have counted her eyelashes and the flecks of green and brown dancing in her hazel irises. She was way too close.

“The point is,” said Shondra, “we’ve all got goals, and we all use people to the extent we can get away with. You, me, everyone. In this case, Mags’ goals and mine converge. The person who has outlived her usefulness is Rosie. She just hasn’t realized it yet.”

I gestured for another smoke. “Great ethics lesson. What does all this have to do with me?”

“Everything, Tarzi. You’ll help me take down Rosie and do it in such a way that she becomes a martyr to the cause of Martian liberation—the kind of liberation both Mags and I want. And, I suspect, that you want, too.”

“Rosie has the entire Martian Resistance behind her. You want to take on all of them?”

“Just a few. Rosie, her bodyguards, her inner circle. All in a way that implicates Port Authority loyalists in her death, so that when I step up and take her place, the movement will rally around me. Instead of Rosie assuming control of Mars—” She pantomimed a curtsey with a nonexistent skirt. “I will.”

“Just like that?”

“We’ll have a bit of bloodshed first. Right now, all over Mars, my people are responding to Rosie’s little coup.”

“You were right there in her office! You could have stopped her!”

“Right,” said Shondra. “And I could have had my hide perforated by bullets or wound up in chains like you and Mags. No thank you. But when the dust settles, I need propaganda. A touch of disinformation. The important thing is unifying the people and the Resistance behind something they already want and are willing to fight for: our liberation. With Rosie gone, the movement will gravitate toward a natural leader.”

“Mags plans on being that leader.”

Shondra cackled. “Mags is fucking delusional! Listen to me, boy. She’s bitten off more than she can chew. She has her hands full with Ceres, and there’s no way she can control Mars, too.”

“You can?”

“Tarzi, I absolutely can. As head of the shipyards, I am the most powerful industrialist on this godforsaken rock. I have political connections and powerful friends, and I’ve treated my workers well. They would go to war for me, and they are proving that right now, from the major cities to the settlements. No one knows Mars better than me, and no one else—not even Mags—has the resources and cash to make this happen.”

I hated to admit it, but Shondra was making a hell of a lot of sense. I shrugged it off. “Great, then. You’ve got it all sewn it up. What do you need me for?”

Shondra licked her lips. “I thought you’d never ask.”

☠️

The Exit

Tarzi.

After she finished explaining, Shondra knocked on the door with a rhythm that must have been a code. When the door opened, a guard stood to each side. She shot one in the face. Before the second could react, she shot him, too.

Shondra handed me the nine-millimeter. It felt good in my hands. Perfectly balanced. A comfortable grip. It didn’t surprise me that a builder of her caliber would have great taste in firearms. She’d probably made Mags’ custom Desert Eagles.

Shondra pulled two magazines from her belt. “Armor piercing. You’ll need these.”

My shirt pocket held a copy of the map she’d given me, which she had not drawn herself. It was a printout of the facility’s fire evacuation plan. She’d highlighted a path in bright yellow. It began about halfway up the fifty-story building and snaked through a series of corridors, through fire doors and stairwells, and ended outside at ground level.

I’d already memorized it—a task that should have taken ten minutes but, when Shondra shut up and let me concentrate, took ten seconds.

I pocketed the magazines in my cargo pants. “You need to free Mags. Where the hell is Patches?”

“I don’t know, but she’s—”

At the thump of heavy, running footfalls in the hall around the corner, Shondra pulled a second pistol from a shoulder holster.

Three guards. The first one who came into view, Shondra dropped with a headshot. She missed the second, but I put two rounds into his torso. The third guard halted just out of sight around the corner. I fired three shots through the edge of the wall.

A scream, and the body fell into view, lifeless on the floor.

Shondra said, “You should conserve your ammo.”

“You should aim for center mass.”

She blew nonexistent smoke from the barrel of her pistol.

The gesture brought a smile to my face. “You’re as crazy as Mags.”

“I doubt that.” Shondra stepped over the bodies and advanced around the corner, keeping watch while I worked. “Hurry up! You need to go. Go!”

I raided the corpses for extra firearms and magazines. “Promise me you’ll set her free.”

Shondra said, “If you think anything can keep me from seeing my kitten again, you’re insane. Now get out of here.”

I did. In my wake, a series of explosions belonged to Shondra, creating a diversion. The fire alarm went off. It bought me time to get to the ground floor, and I only had to shoot six people to do it. At the bottom of the stairs, I sprinted for the exit door.

I hit it so hard I bounced off.

I stumbled and spun and was lucky I didn’t fall on my face. The goddamn thing was supposed to be open!

Several floors above me: shouts and footfalls. I tried the door again. Nothing. Had the system malfunctioned? I heard explosions outside. Was the door blocked by debris?

I didn’t have a clue. But the last place I needed to be was trapped between a sealed exit and an angry mob of guards and prisoners.

I ran back up the stairs to the floor above.

☠️

The Yard

Tarzi.

The door on the second story opened to reveal a courtyard full of prisoners and dozens of guards, bounded on one side by the building and surrounded on the remaining three sides by a two-story fence. On the two corners farthest from me, sentry towers held more guards and swivel-mounted machine guns that could sweep the entire enclosure.

Those guns were, for the moment, silent, despite intermittent bursts from semi-automatic rifles in the towers. I supposed the sentries didn’t want to strafe the crowd with so many of their own caught in it, fighting for their lives in hand-to-hand combat.

I needed to get through the chaos before the tools in the towers changed their minds, and before the crowd in the interior stairwell reached the door at my back. The gate in the fence between the towers seemed like the best escape route. Judging from the surging tempest of bodies already there, a cluster of inmates had reached the same conclusion.

I ran down the concrete stairs and into the melee. So much for a clean getaway.

I pushed my way through, trying to take advantage of any brief opening in the mob, dodging the fights around me as best I could.

It wasn’t good enough. I caught a fist in the side of my head, and the force nearly broke my neck. I stumbled and fell against a guard, only recognizable from his uniform’s rough, grey wool. I clawed at the fabric and struggled to remain on my feet. What I saw of his face before he shoved me away was a red, misshapen disaster missing half its teeth.

I would have fallen again, but the bodies pressed even closer. The people in the stairwell joined the crowd as their fight spilled out of the building, through the door I’d taken, and down into the yard. In every direction, a mosh pit without music lost any semblance of sanity and became a violent blur.

God, the stench of it. Even the rusty Martian wind couldn’t sweep away the fermented sweat, the breath from mouths full of rotting teeth, the piss-stained prison uniforms that hadn’t been cleaned in years and barely held on by their last synthetic threads. I pressed toward the gate, clambering up and over people where I could—people hardly recognizable as individuals but one seething blob of muscle and hate.[2]

In the moments where my head bobbed above the crowd, casual slaughter confirmed my decision to go through it instead of attempting to scale the fence. All along the iron perimeter, prisoners began to climb the bars. Many of them had no choice. People at the edges were being crushed against the enclosure.

Climb or die.

The tattered rags of their orange uniforms hardly clinging to their bodies didn’t surprise me. In my months of snooping through Port Authority files when I was supposed to be working for Rosie, I learned that a PA prison was just about the last place in the system where you want to be held. Torture was common. Food and hygiene were not.

Those orange rags scaling the fence made easy targets for the men in the towers. The machine gunners, freed from the fear of killing their fellow guards on the ground, swept the fence with abandon. Bullets shredded the prisoners. Some held on by one hand, grasping an iron bar as their last breaths left their bodies. Their flaps of skin snapped like tattered flags in the dusk before falling to the ground.

The killing cowered no one. It only fueled the rage of the living.

They were no longer alone. Outside the gate, a second crowd gathered and also appeared to be trying to destroy the barrier. Between the chaos, gunfire, and the setting sun, I caught only glimpses as the mob alternately swallowed me and spit me up.

I could perceive this much: The crowd outside wasn’t the grey of a PA uniform. It lacked any uniformity at all, and that told me it was either part of the underground resistance or Shondra’s people. Or both.

It hit me just how meaningless those distinctions had become. What the hell had Rosie and Shondra done?

Rosie held one of the highest positions in the Port Authority, but she was also a leader in the resistance. Shondra had organized her workers into a separate fighting force, but her shipyards worked hand-in-hand with the Port Authority while covertly supplying the resistance and making things for Mags.

Many people from those different factions worked side-by-side and lived in the same neighborhoods. The only differences were the colors of their uniforms and who signed their paychecks. But few of them were happy with the way things were run on Mars, and who was running them, and all those pent-up tensions had been set off like a bomb.

It all came to me in a flash I had no time to ponder. A sentry tower exploded, showering the scene with iron shrapnel. I caught a piece in the shoulder, and it sliced me open. The riot drowned my cry. Before I knew it, strangers crushed me against the gate.

At least I’d made it that far. Someone’s hand covered half my face, but through one open eye I saw a man outside reloading an RPG, presumably to take out the second tower. If that tower went down, I could climb the fence—as long as I wasn’t smashed into a puree against it.

I drew my pistol. Without much room to aim, I shot the man behind me. His hand fell from my face and gave me space. I shot the guy behind him in the head. A grey-clad fist from beside me landed in my stomach.

Since I’d met Mags on that fateful night exactly two years before, I’d been hit, strangled, captured, shot at, bombed, crashed, toppled from cliffs, set on fire, and landed in more than my fair share of fights. But I had never been punched as hard as that guard hit me.

Three bullets in the torso were his reward. I couldn’t even breathe.

But I could climb.

No sooner had I gripped a vertical bar in the iron fence than the second tower burst into a ball of fire and metal shards. It was louder and closer than the first one. The blast hit so hard that everything around me faded to a muffled, indistinct blur. The cuts and bruises from the explosion didn’t register at the time. I was so amped on adrenaline that I don’t even remember climbing the fence.

The next thing I knew, I hit the ground on the other side. All around me, people shouted and pumped their fists in the air. I was the first over the fence, but not the last. Bodies landed beside me, some on their feet. I stumbled forward, and someone caught me.

I couldn’t hear what she said, but her lips formed the words, “You’re a free man, comrade!”

I raised my fist in salute. “Long live the resistance!”

Someone went for my pistol. I swung my fist blindly to the side and throat-punched my assailant. That crowd was no safer for me than the last. I pushed forward, away from the gate and the yard, into the streets of Hevelius.

Night fell on Mars.

☠️

The Hub

Tarzi.

Approaching the hub, I ejected a magazine and replaced it. Mags was nowhere in sight. I put the thoughts of the people I’d killed far from my mind and took a second to appreciate the island of calm around the hub. Few if any of the average citizens knew the true function of the tower disguised as an agricultural administration building.

Shondra certainly knew, and she knew my PA clearance would give me access, assuming Rosie had been so busy setting off a revolution that she had not yet changed the codes. According to Shondra, Rosie intended to use the hub to control all Martian media broadcasts for propaganda purposes. Shondra wanted that power for herself. Whichever one of them could control the hub would command the flow of information for the entire planet.

Mags’ idle conversation at brunch seemed a lot more prescient to me then.

I typed a code on the panel beside the ground-level entrance and pressed my right palm onto a flat sensor.

I was in.

I passed an automated retina scan in the lobby, but no one guarded the metal detector. I climbed over a railing and went around it. From the other side, I saw dead bodies crammed underneath the reception desk. I didn’t recognize their faces, but the PA uniforms marked them as lobby staff and security.

Sucked to be them. I hoped I wouldn’t end up the same way.

An elevator took me to the top floor. The whole way up, I crouched in a corner, pistol drawn, ready to blast anyone that appeared on the other side of the door. But no one did.

I crept down the hall until I came to the main room. Inside awaited wall-to-wall racks of servers and consoles that could assume control of all Martian communications and media, from the radio towers at spaceports to the streaming news channels and satellite data.

Shondra had warned me. I knew I’d find Rosie there.


[1] Shondra has in mind the 2004 Horrorpops song Psychobitches Outta Hell. On Hell Yeah!, Los Angeles, CA: Hellcat Records.

[2] Tarzi lifted the phrase “muscle and hate” from Nitzer Ebb’s 1987 song, Join in the Chant. On That Total Age, Mute Records (UK) and Geffen/Warner Brothers (US).

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 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!

The Martian Revolution: Part 1 of 4

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Here is the first part of my pre-publication draft for a new Meteor Mags story.

METEOR MAGS: THE MARTIAN REVOLUTION
Episode 29 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
© 2021 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
16K words. Science Fiction > Action > Adventure.

Torn between conflicting factions in the Martian Resistance, Mags’ unofficially adopted nephew Tarzi spends his sixteenth birthday in a struggle to survive. Betrayed and imprisoned on Mars by people they once thought were friends, Mags and Patches vow to soak the red planet in blood if that’s what it takes to rescue Tarzi and change the political structure of the solar system. But not everyone is who they pretend to be.

☠️

Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light.

I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.

—Sarah Williams; The Old Astronomer to His Pupil, 1936.

☠️

Prologue: Sixteen Bullets

4 July 2030. Tarzi.

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me. Happy birthday, dear Tarzi. Happy birthday—

You know, some small part of me hoped for a cake with sixteen candles. Maybe a chocolate cheesecake. A pineapple upside-down with cherries. Even a lousy white cake with cream-cheese frosting would do.

Instead, I got a nine-millimeter pistol with fifteen armor-piercing rounds in an extended magazine.

The sixteenth bullet waited in the chamber when I slammed a fresh magazine into place, but not anymore. It took out the first guard. I think I got two more. Then there’s the round lodged firmly inside the skull of my former boss, Rosalia—unless it exited the back of her head.

It’s hard to say for sure. She fell behind a server rack, and I can’t see much from here.

That was one hell of a lucky shot.

It helps that I can slow time. It does not help that half a dozen rough motherfuckers keep shooting at me with semi-automatic rifles. I hug the ground and listen. They don’t seem to mind wasting ammo. If they aren’t careful, they’ll shoot this room to bits. Then we’re all fucked.

I count the bursts of rifle fire and try to anticipate when they pause to reload. The console I’m hiding behind should buy me a few seconds.

After that?

Probably the end of my last birthday.

Fuck this noise. I can take a few of the bastards with me.

To a merry life, then.

And a short one.

☠️

Part One: Opening Moves

The Arrival

3 July 2030.

Meteor Mags and Patches arrived on Mars in the Bêlit. The Puma Broadcasting Network played Jerk of All Trades by Lunachicks.[1] Mags said, “That’s my jam!” She raised one hand to make the sign of the devil and danced beside the captain’s chair until the song finished.

Patches sprawled on one side in front of the exit. Her eyes narrowed to slits. Her bushy torso rose and fell in a rapid rhythm.

Mags said, “Are you excited to visit the birthday boy? He’ll be happy to see you.” She adjusted her hair and touched up her makeup in a mirror. “Can’t have Shondra seeing me looking like a dog’s breakfast.”[2]

But no amount of makeup could hide the bruises from her failed mission to Earth, nor the stapled laceration that ran through one eyebrow and past her hairline. She squirted liquid morphine on her tongue to dull the ache in her cracked ribs.[3] A slow warmth crept through her veins.

Patches mewed.

“Whatever, baby. Not all of us are invincible, and that shit hurts.”[4] Mags knelt beside Patches and scratched both sides of the fuzzy calico face. “Let’s go meet Shondra. It’s the middle of the bloody night here, but we’ll have lunch with Tarzi tomorrow. Maybe we can get some kisses before bedtime.”

Mags grabbed a passport for Margaret Reid and tucked it into a zippered pocket on her military-issue tactical pants.[5] They weren’t the sexiest thing to meet Shondra in, but they were comfortable and functional. After getting nearly blown to bits in Africa twenty-four hours earlier, Mags craved comfort.

The pair of feline adventurers locked down the ship and went to find their hostess in the Martian shipyards. Patches scampered ahead, sniffing here and there, chasing bugs and clawing a few pieces of Shondra’s property that would never recover. She looked over her shoulder to see if Mags was keeping up, then bolted to the other side of the street.

“Wait up!” Mags paused and held an arm against her ribs. “Goddamnit, I’m getting old. Wait up!”[6]

☠️

The Sleepover

As the owner of the Martian shipyards, Shondra easily afforded several apartments on Mars. Some she used to entertain customers. Some she kept secret between her and various lovers. Some were quiet places to get away from it all, purchased under aliases and known only to her. None of them was quite so luxurious as her private quarters within the shipyard.

Mags held a rocks glass filled with rum and settled onto a red velvet chaise lounge. Patches jumped up beside her. “Shondra, you live like a queen! Sorry about the cat hair.”

Shondra said, “Patches doesn’t shed half as bad as you. Every time you come around waving that tail of yours, it takes the maids an entire day to vacuum.”

Mags patted the lounge beside her. “That’s not even true. Come sit with me.”

Shondra finished at the mini-bar, and her silhouette strode across the massive windows overlooking the shipyards. For a silent moment, she turned her back to Mags and took a sip while enjoying the view of her empire. Below, the nightshift workers toiled in sprays of sparks from arc welders and the glow of halogen lamps. Above, the gleaming stars.

Eventually, she sat on the edge of the lounge and clinked her glass against Mags’. “To empires.”

“So long as they belong to us.”

Shondra took a sip. “Do you like it on Ceres?”

“Shondra, I love it! It sucked so bad when the old place on Vesta got wrecked, but my girls are doing amazing things on Ceres. It’s a dream come true.”

“I’m happy for you.” Shondra ran her fingertips up and down Mags’ thigh.

“What about you? It seems like you’ve got it all on Mars.”

Shondra’s eyes sparkled in candlelight thrown from the end table next to the lounge. “Not everything. There’s a certain kitty I wish would visit more often. But I make do. I’m a firm believer that you can have it all in life. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”

“Words to live by.” Mags took a gulp and laid back on the lounge, balancing her drink in her lap between her crossed legs. “Something is missing, though, isn’t it? I can tell just by looking at you.”

“Can’t sneak anything past those bright green eyes of yours.” Shondra took a drink. “The truth is, Mars is my dream come true. But the dream is tainted. I’m sick of our laws and government being controlled by Earth. Mars can govern itself. I won’t be happy until she does.”

“Cheers,” said Mags.

“Cheers.”

Mags said, “I’m here for Tarzi’s birthday tomorrow, but you know I am down with the Martian liberation. It’s been on my mind a lot this year. It’s the next big step to system-wide freedom from Earth’s interference. Let’s make it happen. You and me. Rosie can help.”

Shondra held out one hand. When Mags set hers in it, Shondra ran the backs of her nails over Mags’ wrist. “Are you ready for a revolution?”

Mags shivered. She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Do you remember that Danko Jones song? Revolution—and Then We Make Love.”[7]

Shondra slid onto Mags. “Why wait?” She kissed the smuggler’s neck.

Mags winced. “Take it easy! I fucked up my ribs yesterday. Look, they’re all taped up.”

“I’ll be gentle,” said Shondra.

Mags set her drink on the end table. “Alright, then.”

Patches leapt off the lounge. She sauntered into the kitchen where Shondra had set out a pair of bowls. She was well-fed and napping on the bed for two hours before Mags and Shondra finally snuggled under the sheets and went to sleep.

Sunrise came early.

☠️

The Lunch

4 July 2030.

Kepler Mall sprawled across the Martian landscape. It shared one border with the rest of Hevelius, and the Port Authority considered it to be legally within city limits. But the three sides jutting from the city’s eastern-most boundary drew on the map a jagged explosion of commerce the local government struggled to keep up with.

Shoppers relied on global positioning data from the Martian Satellite Network to navigate the labyrinth of shops rising two hundred and fifty stories into the sky at its highest point. Wrapped around the peak in loops and dips, a roller coaster offered Mars’ bravest tourists a ride they never forgot.

In 2029, shopping in the mall without MSN data became a fad. After three months of people dying of starvation and thirst in obscure corridors, the Port Authority put a brutal end to that past-time. Much of the video was suppressed, and many of the bodies were never found. Within two weeks of the crackdown, the mall once again became a cheerful place that pleased its shareholders.

Mags and Patches met Tarzi on the scenic balcony of the Crimson Crane, a restaurant on the top floor serving breakfast twenty-five hours a day. Even after the installation of artificial gravity and a manufactured atmosphere, Mars retained its red tint. The planet’s iron burnished the underbellies of clouds, blazed on mountains in the sun, and frothed in ice-cold rivers running from the polar ice caps into once-forgotten stream beds.

Mags switched off her satellite connection and stuffed her phone into the pocket inside her bra. “They’re tracking us.”

Across the table, Tarzi slid a palm-sized disc onto the surface between them. “They were.”

“Nice.” She leaned back in her café chair and relaxed. “Did you ever think about what it would take to assume control of a massive building like this?”

“I always think about that over breakfast,” Tarzi lied. “But control what? The perimeter so no one can get in or out? The people inside so chaos won’t erupt? Buying the politicians and corporations who really control the thing?”

Mags purred. “Now you’re asking the important questions.” She lowered her voice as their waitress approached for the second time. “Don’t forget about the flow of information. In a system like this, data and media are your main weapons. If you control communication—”

The waitress sidled up to the table with three plates and a smile for Mags. “You had four eggs over easy and three slices of raw ham?”

Mags took one plate. “Thank you, dear. The dish of liver, you can set on the floor. It’s for my cat.”

Tarzi claimed the third plate of beans, bangers, eggs, and toast. His black cup of coffee stood in contrast to the sugary beast Mags ordered, topped with a mountain of whipped cream and cinnamon. When the waitress was out of earshot, he said, “Probably a plant.”

“Definitely a plant.” Mags sipped the hot espresso and wiped the whipped cream from her upper lip with the back of one hand. “Every business owner and employee in this mall is Port Authority, whether directly employed or financially backed. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“I was wondering,” said Tarzi, “if Patches could make eating liver sound any more disgusting. What is she doing?”

“She isn’t rolling in it, is she?” Mags checked. “Liver’s gross, but it has massive nutrients. Along with the heart, it’s one of the first organs a cat eats when she takes down prey.”

“Right,” said Tarzi. He eyed the chunk of sausage on the end of his fork, then set it down.

“Happy birthday,” said Mags. She raised her cup. “To my favorite nephew.”

Their glasses clinked together. “I thought Anton was your favorite.”

“He’s definitely Sarah’s. Do you remember what it was like to be his age?”

“Sure,” said Tarzi. “The day I turned fourteen, I met a homicidal pirate who whisked me away on a series of random space adventures. Ever since then, it’s been a blur.”[8] He savored a sip. “Great kids, though. The stuff they’re doing in Dumpster Kittens totally slays.”

“Did you hear the Toilet Gator single?”

“Dunny Croc,” he quoted, “lives in a secret place.”

“It’s the kind of place that you can’t escape!”[9]

“Hell no, it isn’t. You need to market that. If I can’t have a Dunny Croc t-shirt by next week, then what the fuck are we even doing out here?”

“That’s what I’m saying!” Mags shoveled an entire slice of ham into her face, chewed three times, and swallowed it nearly whole. She sat back and crossed her arms behind her head. “You wouldn’t want to manage the entire publishing catalog of Two Black Roses Records, would you?”

Tarzi laughed. “Not in a billion years! Who is your second choice?”

Before Mags could reply, a drone interrupted. Like a miniature helicopter, it flew up and over the balcony railing and zoomed straight for the table.

Mags drew a pistol from inside her leather jacket before Tarzi even moved. But before she pulled the trigger, a familiar voice stopped her.

“Hi!” said Rosalia. “Happy birthday!”

Tarzi said, “Thanks, boss. How are things?”

“Great,” Rosalia replied from kilometers away. Her voice came through the drone’s speakers, and the drone’s camera sent video to her of Mags and Tarzi. “Listen, I hate to bother you, but can you come to the office for a minute?”

Mags holstered her pistol. “Give it up, Rosie. It’s the kid’s birthday!”

“I’m really sorry,” said Rosalia, “but I have a gift for you, and I want you to have it before I go away. Something’s come up, and I need to leave the planet in an hour. If you come in for a few minutes, you can have the whole rest of the week off!”

Mags frowned.

Tarzi said, “You drive a hard bargain. We’ll be over on the next shuttle from the mall. Alright?”

“See you soon.” The drone disappeared over the edge of the balcony.

Mags said, “She’s got some nerve, calling you in on your day off. We had plans!”

“Relax,” said Tarzi. “She’s awesome to work for, and she’s giving me a week off. It’s like five minutes from here on the shuttle.”

“Fine,” said Mags. “Let’s go visit the wicked witch!” She shoved another slice of ham and a couple eggs into her mouth and washed them down with half of the sugary, caffeinated monster on the other side of her plate. She tossed a wad of cash onto the table and waved to their waitress on the way out.

On the way to the shuttle, Mags and Tarzi cracked sarcastic jokes and laughed at recollections of their adventures over the past two years: the first time they met Donny and he tried to kill them, the time they fell into a cavern full of octopus eggs, the time Tarzi made fun of Mags and she repaid him by pretending to be permanently disfigured.[10]

Settling into her seat, Mags said, “Good times.” Patches crawled into her lap.

☠️

The Conspiracy

Rosalia’s office on the forty-fifth floor of the Port Authority Administration building had expanded since 2029. Back then, in a government post Mags’ bribes had helped her acquire, she was the secretary to the Chief Administrator, and she reported directly to Kaufman. But after Kaufman abandoned his post to join Mags’ pirate crew—an endeavor Rosalia assisted—a much more pliable man replaced him.[11]

That was no surprise to Rosalia. She had planned on it for years, played no small role in making it happen, and exploited it to her every advantage. Besides manipulating the Port Authority to the benefit of the underground resistance, besides leaking whatever information she felt would be useful to her for Mags to know, Rosalia redecorated. She knocked out walls between offices until she had the space of half a dozen rooms to herself on one corner of the forty-fifth floor. To maintain the new Chief’s feeling of superiority, she had his office re-done the same way, but with twice as much space.

The palatial results were an obvious waste of the PA’s budget. But who was there for anyone to complain to? Certainly not the Chief and his right-hand woman who had a knack for keeping him fat and happy with the spoils of power. And the government on Earth? In 2030, humanity’s home planet had enough troubles of its own, and a few hundred million dollars siphoned by corruption was the least of its worries.

When Mags arrived with Tarzi and Patches, they stepped into the second most opulent office in the Martian government.

“Damn, Rosie! I love what you’ve done with the place!” Mags admired the oil paintings on the walls of the foyer, any one of which could have paid a miner’s pension for generations, and the largest of which cost more than the gross domestic product of some Earth nations.

Rosalia hugged her. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to sell me Blue Poles?”

Mags laughed. “Not a chance. That piece has sentimental value. I can get you a good deal on a Monet, though. What’s with the goon squad?”[12]

Half a dozen guards stood silent, three on each side of the doorway.

“Don’t mind them,” said Rosalia. “Something’s come up, and I could use the extra security. Tarzi! Happy birthday!”

“Thanks, boss.” He held out his fist for a bump, and she met it. “How’d you find us at the mall? I had a signal blocker with me.”

Rosalia raised a finger in a fake scold. “That’s illegal.”

“What isn’t?”

“True enough. I sent my drone to the floor where there was a signal void. Your sitting on the balcony was luck.”

Mags said, “We like to dine in style. Is Shondra here?”

Rosalia’s amiable façade cracked for a fraction of a second. “How did you—”

“She has a unique scent. Now I know something is up. Why don’t you tell us what’s really happening?”

Rosalia said, “Follow me.” She led them from the foyer to the corner of the building, where a rosewood desk bigger than a coffin awaited. Behind it, two walls of windows overlooked Hevelius.

Near the far corner of the desk, Shondra reclined in a chair. She filed her nails with an emery board as if she had not a care in the world. Her face lit up. “Maggie!”

“Long time.” Mags gave her a peck on the cheek. “Do you mind telling me what’s so important that you had to interrupt my breakfast?”

Rosalia sat behind her desk and clacked her painted nails on its lacquered top in a staccato rhythm. “The Chief Administrator is dead.”

“Dead?” Tarzi stopped behind a seat. “What happened?”

Rosalia said, “You want to sit down for this.”

Mags sat directly across the desk from Rosalia, with Shondra on her right and Tarzi taking the spot on her left.

Patches rubbed her cheeks on the corner of a cardboard box on the carpet below one window. Satisfied with the packaging, she climbed in and made herself at home. She curled into a nap. Her fuzzy tail covered her nose.

Rosalia said, “An hour ago, I killed him. The body’s still in the office, but let’s just say the Chief isn’t taking any calls right now.” She relished a rare pause where both Mags and Tarzi were stunned into silence. “In other news, I’ll be moving into a bigger office.”

Mags broke into laughter. “Rosie, what the hell were you thinking? Hahaha! Don’t get me wrong. I thought about taking him out myself. But to what end? There’s no guarantee that you get promoted into his position. Not with the old-boys network in the PA.”

Rosalia rested her elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’ve gained the support of people in high places. The resistance will take care of any local opposition. A majority of the Martian people want me in that position, and Earth’s authorities will back me up.”

Shondra said, “Rosie’s been busy.”

“I guess so,” said Mags. “Still, I’m a bit peeved that all this happened without talking to me first.” She lit a stolen cigarette. “Any deal with Earth is probably fucked. The last thing they want is the Martian independence we’ve been working on for years.”

“No, they’re on board with the plan,” said Rosalia. “Earth is prepared to sign a new trade agreement with Mars once I take over.”

“Oh, Jesus,” said Mags. “You’re not making a treaty with them, are you?”

Rosalia said, “That’s exactly what I’m doing. Earth will retain control over some things. Shipping. Trade. Interplanetary policy.”

“Fuck,” said Mags. “Basically everything? Fuck those arseholes! Earth needs to stay the hell away from Mars! You can’t trust any of those warmongering, baby-raping idiots! What are you—”

Shondra interrupted. “Mags, relax. This deal means a hell of a lot more money.”

“Fuck that,” said Mags. “If we want to get rich, then we put a boot in Earth’s arse and do things ourselves!”

Rosalia’s smile disappeared. “I knew you’d feel that way. That is why you’ve been chosen to be our representative to Earth. Our negotiator.”

Mags choked on a puff of smoke. “What? I’m the most wanted felon on Earth! They only want me dead or in chains.”

Rosalia said, “Precisely. But I solved that, too.”

“How? With a pardon?”

“Not quite,” said Rosalia. “Let me show you.”

In later years, Meteor Mags could never put her finger on exactly what prompted her to spring into motion. Was it, she wondered, something about Rosalia’s scent or inflection? The unexplained presence of the guards? The interruption of her meal? Sheer instinct?

Mags was out of her chair and lunging over the desktop toward Rosalia when the first tranquilizer dart hit her. Fired by a guard behind her, its metal tip sank into her backside and spit poison into her veins.

In the same moment, Rosalia’s fist smashed a button atop her desk. It sprang a trap for Patches. Two halves of a transparent sphere erupted from the floor, supported by metal arms that slammed the halves together, enclosing the calico’s cardboard box.

Mags’ hands went for Rosalia’s throat.

Rosalia kicked her chair backward. On her way to the ground, she fired a second dart that caught Mags in the meat below her collarbone. The back of the chair smacked into the floor. Mags’ trajectory took her over Rosalia to smash into the window behind her.

Mags struck the glass but landed on her feet. The sedative made her stumble. Before she could resume her attack, the office lit up like a lightning storm.

Inside the transparent sphere around Patches, a fury of electric current seized the cat with tendrils of white outlined in blue. Patches swung her claws until they shredded the remnants of the box trapped with her. Levitating in the center of the sphere, she could not reach its perimeter to destroy it.

Her feline howls drowned out all but the roar from Mags’ throat. The smuggler pounced on Rosalia.

Tarzi tried to leap to his feet, but he was tackled by a guard and taken to the ground. A stranglehold ended his shouting.

Mags straddled Rosalia and swung her fists. The blows fell without her typical strength. “I will kill you!” She took punches from Rosalia to her stomach. Though her eyes flashed with fire, Mags’ body betrayed her. She slumped forward and fell face-first onto her opponent.

Rosalia rolled the body to one side, cursing with the effort. She gripped a fistful of Mags’ hair and held the brigand’s head to the light surrounding Patches.

Spit streamed from the sides of Mags’ mouth and down her chin. Her eyes blazed, but she could not move or shout.

Rosalia said, “Thank your so-called nephew for this. He told me how Patches got deactivated last year by electricity.” [13]

Patches contorted within the ball of energy. Her legs struck out at unnatural angles. Her hair stood on end. Patches’ scream made Mags’ blood run cold in her veins.

Light and shadow performed a twisted ballet across Rosalia’s face, mirrored on Mags’ pale skin. “You should have joined us. You should have taken the deal.” She held Mags’ head firmly in her grip and forced the pirate’s green eyes to meet hers through the tears. “You brought this on yourself.”

Patches’ struggling came to an abrupt stop. A cylinder rose from the floor and swallowed the transparent glass bubble around her. Rosalia released Mags and assumed a place at the window, which she opened with the touch of a button.

The cylinder shot Patches into the sky.

“So much for your familiar,” said Rosalia. “She’ll soon be in orbit—far, far away. And you will be on Earth. A price for peace.”

Tears ran down Mags’ cheeks. She could not curse Rosalia, but Tarzi did. The young man wished unspeakable things upon Rosalia and her ancestors—until a soldier choked the sound out of him.

“Strip-search her.” Rosalia indicated one of her guards with her finger.

“I’ll do it.” Shondra set down her emery board on the arm of her chair for the first time since the confrontation. “I know her tricks. You do not want to try to disarm that bitch, even passed out.”

On the floor, before Tarzi’s eyes, Shondra removed all of Mags’ clothes and her hidden weapons. She said, “Let me take the boy. He knows things about her crew that can help us.”

Rosalia said, “You can have him. Get me something useful.”

Both Tarzi and Mags were carted off in chains—one struggling the whole way, and one completely unconscious.

Patches was nowhere to be found.


[1] From their 1995 album of the same name on Go-Kart Records: New York.

[2] “Dog’s breakfast” is Australian slang for an absolute mess.

[3] Mags was injured in Antipodes, which took place on 2 July 2030.

[4] Patches became indestructible in 2029, in Patches the Immortal.

[5] Mags has a huge collection of fake passports under aliases that are variations on her name in several languages. Mags’ great-gramma often used this same alias.

[6] Mags turned 106 years old in November 2029. Due to her magic ring, her expected (though not guaranteed) lifespan is 200 years. When she says she is getting old, she means really frickin’ old.

[7] On Wildcat. 2017, AFM Records: Schwalmstadt, Germany.

[8] Tarzi’s fourteenth birthday is the first scene in Old Enough.

[9] The complete lyric to Toilet Gator, which Mags and Tarzi quote here, appears in Small Flowers.

[10] These events were chronicled in Old Enough and Red Metal at Dawn.

[11] See The Lost Crew of the Volya IX for details of Kaufman’s desertion and Rosalia’s assistance in his escape.

[12] Mags’ ownership of and sentimental attachment to Jackson Pollack’s Blue Poles appears in The Ryderium Caper. It was a favorite of Gramma Margareta’s, and the poles inspired Mags’ free-energy system.

[13] As told in Daughter of Lightning.

We3: Home Is Run No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

postcards

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

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

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

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

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

Deck the Halls with Prehistoric Carnivores!

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

Wants, Needs, and Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, that’s enough.

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

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