hot sauce: take one

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It’s been a while since we had a post about food, not because I don’t enjoy chronicling my culinary experiments but because my camera sucks so bad—and what’s a food post without great pictures? But other than an amazing crockpot chicken satay with serrano peppers, red curry sauce, and tahini instead of peanut sauce, you haven’t missed much this season. Today, however, we break the dry spell with a simple but delicious hot sauce I improvised for fun this weekend.

I’m more of a salsa guy than a hot sauce fan, because I love the robust substance of spoonfuls of tomato-based sauce or a chunky salsa fresca. Most hot sauces seem to be more about heat than flavor, with just a tiny bit being enough to set your mouth on fire. I like something I can dip my tortilla chips in and get a big burst of flavor, or drown my tacos in, with the heat amplifying the taste rather than overpowering it. So, Sunday night, after doing some research on peppers, I decided to give hot sauce a try and see if I could find the right balance.

The inspiration came from watching Hot Ones, a fairly popular interview show on YouTube that disrupts the typical “talk show” format by having the guests eat ten consecutively hotter chicken wings—or vegan “wings” for the vegetarian guests. The defining elements of Hot Ones are how impressed the guests are by the deeply researched and often thought-provoking questions, only to violently curse interviewer Sean Evans as the sauces’ Scoville ratings become increasingly ridiculous and pain-inducing. It’s a fun show that features some wonderful musicians, comedians, and actors.

Hot Ones also did a great segment about how hot sauces are made, and just how easy they are to create from scratch in your own kitchen. After seeing that, I had to give it a shot. I’ve made my own salsas, salsa fresca (which is basically salsa with chopped ingredients but not pureed), gazpacho (which is basically salsa eaten as a soup), and spicy tomato-based pasta sauces before, so the key difference seems to come down to one simple ingredient: vinegar. Vinegar preserves the sauce, which is why you typically don’t refrigerate hot sauces but need to refrigerate salsa or marinara. Other than balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, I’m not so crazy about vinegar in food—I use it more often as a household cleaning product! But what the hell. Let’s see if we can make something tasty from it.

So, one trip to Sprouts later, here are the victims I chose, all lined up on the cutting board to be sliced and roughly chopped before the puree.

I did zero fermenting, no heating or boiling, and I did not heat to 185 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling. This was simply a quick-and-easy, totally raw sauce in a small batch meant to be finished off in three or four days.

We’ve got two shallots, two huge cloves of elephant garlic (which I like because there is less peeling involved than regular garlic) two tomatillos (which are the base for salsa verde), a few ounces of mini tomatoes from Mexico (which I have never tried before but just looked so cute and colorful), five Fresno peppers (which are a medium heat), and one serrano pepper (which is hotter than Fresno, for a little kick).

For vinegar, I used 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 4 tablespoons of basic white vinegar. White vinegar just seemed too boring, but the Hot Ones instructional video included apple cider vinegar in one recipe, and I had some in the fridge. I wasn’t sure those amounts of vinegar would be enough liquid to get a good puree with my immersion blender, so I threw in a tablespoon of olive oil to lubricate everything, and figured I could add more vinegar later if necessary.

I added a little bit of sea salt (a special blend I’ve used for years, with kelp flakes and sesame seeds in it, and it is my all-time favorite salt), some ground black pepper, and maybe a tablespoon of dried cilantro.

I had a couple serrano peppers I held in reserve, just in case this mix wasn’t hot enough, but I learned my lesson last year about how easy it is to go overboard on serranos. The two backup serranos proved to be unnecessary, as the flavor and heat levels of this sauce came out perfectly matched to my taste. I’ll find something else to do with them! I love serranos, but they are like a cat who invites you to pet it, then at some point freaks out and claws your hand to ribbons. There is a serrano sweet spot, for sure, and beyond that point… abandon all hope, ye who pepper. But the same is true for hatch chiles, poblanos, and habaneros, all of which I’ve learned the hard way. They’re all fun and games until you cross a line, and I guess the trick is just finding that line for yourself.

The Fresno peppers, I could probably slice and eat raw or put them on a burger. That’s a comfortable heat level, and now I wonder where they have been all my life. Thank you, Hot Ones and Sean Evans for inspiring me to research peppers and try something new.

Anyway, here’s a crappy cell phone pic of the final product.

I lucked out and got what I consider the perfect consistency: thicker like a sauce, not watery but easily poured in controlled doses. My handheld immersion blender didn’t puree the seeds, and they’re visible upon inspection, but it did a great job liquefying everything else. You can also see the cilantro flakes in there, or maybe pepper skins. It looks prettier in person, but hey. Such is my camera situation.

I was almost scared to pour some on a tortilla chip and test it, but amazed when it came out perfect. I was like, Ooooh shit, get me a bowl of chips and let’s pour it on! The tomatillos give it a zesty tang, and there’s plenty of time to revel in the flavor before the heat comes through. When the heat arrives, it’s a friendly level of warmth, not a scary one. Eating it in quantities more appropriate to a salsa will make the eyes water and the nose run, along with a lingering endorphin buzz, but a few dabs of this gives a pleasant warmth. The warmth lasts for quite some time, and the garlic flavor stays around even longer. If you freak out over a few jalapeno slices on a hot dog or pizza, then your tolerance is lower than mine, so adjust accordingly. I think that without the serrano, this would be a somewhat mild sauce, and I’d rate it at medium with the serrano. It would definitely be hot if I had put in the backup serranos. 

I put some in a little jam jar after pigging out on it over chips.

My next plan was to put it on a burger for dinner. Mission accomplished. The burger was a bleu cheese and onion burger from Sprouts, pan fried in some olive oil with two toasted slices of Italian bread and some shredded Mexican-style cheese and not a single other condiment or dressing. Not to brag, but it might be the best burger sauce ever created. Though I didn’t snap a photo, I probably used half a cup of the sauce, slathering it on and adding some to every bite. It was warm, it was tasty, and it was a flavor explosion. I’m calling this experiment a resounding success, and I look forward to making more hot sauces.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell

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METEOR MAGS: THE SINGING SPELL

© 2020 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 26 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

UPDATE: This story now appears alongside four others in The Singing Spell and Other Tales, published October 2020.

Description: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.

Word Count: 9K.

Seven sisters walk across the land,
singing creation, hand in hand.

Softly singing fish into the sea,
songs unfolding into you and me.

Sacred sisters, daughters of the sky,
springing into life the birds who fly,
shining brilliance, watching time go by.

Sister Moon; Pleiades, 2020.

PART ONE: BEST FRIENDS

Snacks

In the early days of asteroid belt mining, back when Mags and I were building the club on Vesta, entrepreneurs opened bars to serve the rough and rowdy blue-collar workers. Gambling, prostitution, and fighting were the chief forms of entertainment, giving the miners a chance to blow off steam in a fog induced by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.

Few musicians had made their way to the Belt in 2025, and those who did were in constant demand. But not all the Belt’s inhabitants were fans of that first wave of sonic settlers and their crowd-pleasing selections.

Under the table at her booth, Mags squeezed the handle of the .50 caliber pistol in her garter holster. “This music is bullshit!”

With a red plastic straw, I swirled the ice cubes melting at the bottom of a gin and tonic. “Some people are sentimental about these old songs.”

“Fuck them,” said Mags. “They’ve been playing the same top-forty garbage for more than fifty years.”

“Sod off, Magpie. I like this song.”

“Are you kidding me? I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than hear REO Speedwagon again.”

“Oh yeah? I’d rather shove my face in a fuckin’ meat grinder.”

“I’d rather chop off my head, shove it a fuckin’ meat grinder, and have the brain sausage jammed down the gaping hole in my neck with a broom handle!”

“So? I’d rather eat that sausage after you pooped it into a champagne glass.”

“Celina! What in the actual fuck is wrong with you?!”

I drained my glass. “You started it.”

“I did not!” Mags polished off a pint glass of rum and reconsidered. “Okay. I did. Wanna dance?”

“Not with you. You can’t even be nice!”

“Celina, are you shitting me? After all these years—”

“Yes, I am totally shitting you. You’d realize that if you weren’t wasted, you fucking cot case!”[1]

“I will kill this band.”

“Dude,” I said, “I believe it’s time for you to fly.”[2]

“Fuck yes, it is.” Mags snorted. “I take it on the run, baby.”

“Mhm. Cause that’s the way you want it, baby.”[3]

“So, I can kill them?”

“If you like,” I said. “But save the last dance for me.”

Mags squeezed my hand. “Let me see about these tunes.”

“The fuck you will. Sit down. I need snacks.”

“Snacks?”

“Snacks, you furry harlot! You are not starting a riot before we get something to eat.”

Mags sat back in the booth and sulked. “I am kind of hungry.”

“Then will you shut up and try not to kill anyone?!” I got up from the booth. “Do you want regular chips? They have yam chippies, and a salt and vinegar type—”

“I want chips,” said Mags, “made from a bloody potato!”[4]

I leaned my hip against the table. “We could get them made from grub worms. They’re high in protein.”

“You can’t get high on protein. I tried.” Mags squinted. “Do you know what I love about you?”

“Yes,” I said. “You know that if this band plays one more geriatric rock hit, I will lop off their bits and serve them to the bouncers. Grilled.”

Mags reared back in a laugh that rivaled the volume of the concert. “That’s a damn good reason.” She smacked her hand on the tabletop. “You fucking love that REO song, though!”

“What if I do? Now stay put. I’ll buy us another round and see what they can do about munchies.”

Mags drummed her fingers on the table.

I’d known the bartender for thirty-seven years. He understood my signal to make something special for Mags.

She lost consciousness on the floor of the club, leaving me to gather up the clothes she’d strewn about the place and tip the staff well enough that we might be welcome back someday, despite the broken chairs. When she awoke in the bedroom of my flat, things did not, at first, go well.[5]

Then they did.

☠️

Maggie Maid

Anyone who knows Mags knows she loves to dance naked. She’ll do it for tips, she’ll do it for free. She’ll do it completely pissed at the most inappropriate moments.[6] But she wasn’t always like that.

The first time I met her in 1938, she was in a fistfight with a bunch of blokes on a dock in England. They were trying their damnedest to prevent her from boarding a ship which, among other things, carried stolen goods I planned to deliver to the States.

I’m sure that little sheila could have killed them all if she had to. But I needed their services, not their corpses. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing a bunch of drongos beating on a girl my age. Especially when they worked for me.

Then I saw she had rescued my lost cat, who bounded into my arms and just about had me in tears. I thought maybe that feisty cunt beating the fuck out of the hired help might make a good mate.

I broke up the fight and paid the lads several weeks’ worth of wages in a roll of cash before ushering a bruised and filthy Mags into my private cabin, which was hardly big enough for me, let alone the two of us and my cat, Starry.[7]

That’s where we had our first fight.

It wasn’t right away. We sailed at least a week before I explained the situation we were sailing to. When Mags heard what kind of club awaited us, she lost her shit.

I chalk up her destruction of most everything that wasn’t nailed down in my cabin to one simple thing, one thought that consumed that furry head of hers: What would Mama think?

My oldies were straight-up smugglers and criminals, and Mum was indigenous. Their marriage wasn’t even legal. In those years, many girls my age and younger were being kidnapped and sent to “re-education” facilities to be forcibly trained in English and get beaten and abused until they were stripped of all our culture and history. The white government didn’t even remotely consider native people to be Aussie citizens until the 1960s.[8] Even then, people called us stupid shit like “Abos”.

So, it wasn’t like I came up ignorant of violence, racism, and oppression. But Mags’ mum—as I discovered in many stories over the next year—had ideas about race, class, labor, and feminism that her daughter absorbed, but for which most of society did not yet have words.

In my cabin, I was treated to some of that maternal wisdom at great length and considerable volume. Little of my dinnerware survived.

I held Starry in my arms while Mags went into her little tornado. Eventually, I had enough of her bullshit. “Pipe down, willie wagtail! It was just a suggestion. You can do whatever the bloody fuck you want once we get off this boat!”

She set a plate on the tiny kitchen countertop instead of slamming it on the floor. “Anything I want,” she said. It was like she never heard the phrase before. “I can, can’t I?”

“Hell,” I said, “you can jump into the goddamn ocean right now, and no one could stop you. Do whatever you want. I was just trying to prepare you.”

“Anything I want,” said Mags.

I didn’t know if it was a question or not, so I said, “What’s on the list? Do you want to have a hug first? Then maybe clean up this fucking mess? It looks like a dog’s breakfast in here.”

She hugged me and Starry. He licked her nose. She kissed him and, without a word, got to work tidying up the disaster she had created. I took Starry on deck, and when I came back, the place was immaculate.

Funny thing about Mags. She likes to put on a show. That whole plate-smashing and screaming routine was a performance. But all I had asked her to do was think about performing on stage for an audience.

That would be at Bert’s place, our destination in the States. Bertrand hated it when I called him “Uncle Randy”. He hated it when I walked in like I owned the place and said whatever I pleased, and he probably hated the mountains of cash he raked in thanks to my parents’ black-market dealings with him.

I’m just busting his bollocks. Bert acted grumpy, but he was a sweetheart—at least, the closest thing you’d find in a seppo in the 1930s.[9] Fuckin’ savages.

On the other hand, the spastic sheila with a tail I had just picked up was more savage than any of them, and I figured she could handle herself.

One thing was clear. She would never dance the way I did.

Eventually, we got to the States, where I had a natter with Bert about my new friend.[10] The club was closed, so Mags amused herself on the stage while I told Bert what little I knew of her story.

When he first saw her, Bert just about shat his pants. Mags in all her underage glory paraded about his stage, doing Spanish dances her mum taught her, and her tail swished this way and that below her ragged, ill-fitting skirt. Once Bert collected himself, we arranged for her to stay with me and clean the place after hours to earn her keep—just so long as she kept the tail hidden and dressed like a boy.

At first, I found those conditions insulting. Then I realized they were for the best. If people had seen her as she really was back then, especially the type of people who wandered into Bert’s place for drunken entertainment, then goddess only knows what unspeakable hell would have been unleashed in that club. Someone would have tried to put his hands on her, and a whole mess of people would have died.

But I liked that about her, and I decided to keep her around.

Who am I kidding? We were inseparable. She was a good mate. The best, that crazy cunt. Sometimes I thought she’d get me killed, but I never doubted she would have died for me, too—or at the very least, come up with a plan that didn’t involve one of us dying.

Don’t tell her I brought this up, but she cleaned the fuck out of Bert’s club. That’s right: our little Maggie Maid. If you call her that to her face now, she’ll cut you. But she scrubbed and tidied and fixed things with a military precision we didn’t normally see in the hired help.

I didn’t get it right away. I just thought she was intense about a few things. I didn’t piece it together until the first time I saw her clean a rifle. She did it quickly, thoroughly, and accurately. Mags cleaned a weapon like her life depended on it. From what she told me, it often had.

You might think of her as a party girl these days, but Magpie was serious as hell back then. It’s how she was raised.

The better part of a year went by. I came and went on a few voyages to oversee my oldies’ business, and everything was fine, at least for a planet that was about to be plunged into the most gruesome war it had ever known.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mags started to fill out. Christ, she was a skinny runt when I met her, and look at her now. She also discovered, in the wee hours when the club was closed, that she enjoyed being onstage.

After hours, in the spare time she created by making a military operation out of her chores, the club stage belonged to my fuzz-tailed friend. She pretended to dance for people in the empty seats. Then she’d get caught up in the fantasy and lose herself in the performance.

She wasn’t as good as she is now, but she threw herself into it.

Some nights, she’d sing.

I had a list of things to teach her: better moves, ways to talk to the customers, how to get the most money out of someone while giving up the least of yourself. How to stay safe.

But at the top of that list was job number one. We needed to go shopping!

☠️

Jack’s Grave

In 2026, Mags knelt at a grave on Vesta. No physical body occupied it. Below the marker lay nothing but solid Vestan stone. The headstone sat 300 meters from the crater base at the south pole. Atop the rim of the crater, overlooking the tallest mountain in the solar system, our newly constructed Club Assteroid reigned. The lights in its windows and along the curved path from its parking lot shone below a clear atmosphere splashed with a million stars.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Mags.

I rested a hand on her shoulder. “Just say what you feel. I could leave.”

Mags set a hand on mine. “Stay with me. Please.”

“Take your time.”

Mags clutched a pendant. She had owned it since January 1938, when a boxer named Jack gave it to her. Jack took her in and fed her when she was alone and friendless, and the only reason she left him was to rescue a lost cat from some hooligans. Lucky for me! Turns out that was my cat, and although Starry’s been gone for nearly a century, he brought us together. [11]

Anyway, at a house on Meteor Street in London, half a year after her mother was killed, Jack showed Mags the basics of boxing and set her on a lifelong path of being a fearsome fighter. She never forgot him.

“Jack gave me this,” she said. “It’s a stone from Australia, where he’d gone for a few boxing matches. I didn’t even know where Australia was. He thought I was fuckin’ crazy.” Mags laughed. “He said the stone was a meteorite from a place called Vesta, and I told him I wanted to go there. He laughed at me. I didn’t care.”

Mags turned the pendant in her hand. The simple grey stone, sliced into a triangular shape and filled with chunks of minerals in brown, black, and yellow, was polished so finely that it caught the distant sunlight and gleamed. Years before, Mags had it mounted on a silver chain and wore it as a necklace ever since. “I promised Jack that if I ever made it to Vesta, I’d return this to its origin.” She wrapped her fingers around the rock. “Here we are, Jack. We did it. Celina’s here with us. I never could have built this club without her. I met her just days after I met you. So much has changed since then.”

Mags placed the necklace at the base of the marker. “I love you, Jack. Welcome to my new home. Hope you like it here.” She wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of one leather-gloved hand.

I said, “He gave you your name, didn’t he?” No matter that I had heard the story many times, or that Mags didn’t remember most of them. She loved to tell that story.

“He did. My ‘fighting name’, he called it. Meteor Mags.”

“And that’s the meteorite?”

“Yeah,” said Mags. “A tiny fragment of this huge rock we’re on right now.”

“Should we bury it?”

“Nah.” Mags wiped her nose. “Maybe it stays here. Maybe it falls again to Earth. I think it should be free.” She rose to her feet.

I asked, “What if it gets lost?”

Mags hugged me. “All of us are lost. Aren’t we?”

I squeezed her even tighter. “I never feel lost with you.”

She nuzzled my neck and kissed it. “We should get a cat.”

☠️

The Hosier

In 1939, I took Mags shopping. Europe was getting fucked by the Nazis. Poland, Czechoslovakia. Millions died.

The States wouldn’t join the war for two more years, until after the attack on Hawaii. In ’39, most of the country hadn’t recovered from the so-called Great Depression.

Believe me, it wasn’t so great.

Government tried, and citizens tried, and none of it amounted to a pint of piss. It took another world-wide war to pull the Yanks out of their mess.

Even then, plenty of stateside companies made huge profits by selling goods to the Third Reich. Prohibition of alcohol sales had ended by then, too. But before that was over, the eighteenth amendment created an underground criminal empire with connections, wealth, and power. The whole situation was a lit stick of dynamite.

I thought Mags had a bit of dynamite in her, too, and I didn’t think twice about throwing her on the pile of explosives. Hell, I was curious.

Mags grew up in the middle of armed urban warfare when most of the piss-ants in Chicago were still trying to sort how to chop off a toe or beat a few helpless teenage girls into hooking for them. I wasn’t any stranger to the underworld, but my impression of most people I met was—not good.

They lacked guts. They lacked conviction. Even the ones I liked seemed a bit dense. A snag short of a barbie, for fuck’s sake.[12]

I always knew I was smarter, but they had muscle. A ton of muscle, on a huge payroll.

Not that I thought of Mags as muscle back then. She was my friend, and—

Oh, fuck it. I totally thought of her as muscle, and I hoped she could help me make a few bucks. I had a list of people I’d love to exterminate to take over their rackets, and she was exceptionally qualified for the job. Agile, intelligent, and absolutely ruthless. Plus, she liked me.

It sounds mercenary, but we had fun. She was like a kid in a candy shop with all the American goods in those days, things you couldn’t get so easily outside the States, and it made me happy to see her happy. Trying on different things. Preening and posing in front of mirrors.

Even in her youth, Magpie had her moods. But when my little cyclone of destruction was pleased with something, she lit up like a star. You should have seen her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took Mags for a long walk through the streets of Chicago. She’d lived a rough-and-tumble life of poverty and violence before I met her, and nice clothes weren’t something she ever thought of as her reality. Those things always belonged to someone else—someone more privileged. Someone wealthier. I steered us through the commercial district until she stopped dead in her tracks.

Mags was entranced by a hosier’s window display. Plastic mannequin legs strutted in a variety of socks and stockings. I said, “See something you like?”

“All of it.” She pressed her hands to the window, and her breath made a patch of fog on the glass. “When we were in Spain, finding clean socks was nearly impossible. Mama had to steal them for soldiers.”[13]

“Let’s not steal these ones,” I said. “We can go inside and try them on.”

“Try them on?”

“Mhm.” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. “See if you like them before we buy them.”

“I like all of them.”

“Why don’t we pick a few you like best?” I offered my hand, and she took it. We went inside.

Honestly, you couldn’t try on shit in that store, but I knew the owner. I had a chat with the girl at the sales counter, and I let her know I’d pay for whatever we needed. Mags must have cost me a month’s worth of tips trying it all on.

One pair of white, thigh-high stockings really caught her attention. They had tiny white hearts sewn into the lace, and a ruffle around the top. Mags pulled them on and wiggled her toes. She sprang to her feet. “These make me feel like dancing!”

She danced all over the bloody store. Up on the benches, in front of the windows. I couldn’t keep her off the sales counter. Eventually, I gave up and joined in.

Mags was about fifteen, not quite sixteen. Even then, she had infectious energy that swept you into whatever party was happening in her mind.

I bought those stockings and a dozen other pairs. Then we needed to find matching shoes and skirts and garters. I guess you can blame me for Mags’ obsession with legwear. I created a monster—but one with exceptional taste in socks.

She liked them so much that she started dancing at Bert’s club that weekend, and the solar system was never the same.

Sue me.

PART TWO: FOREVER

The Highway

In 1942, Mags and I were proper pissed without the foggiest clue where we were other than a stretch of barren, sunbaked trail in the wasteland of Western Australia.

We’d arrived by boat the week before in Fremantle Harbour and, after visiting with my oldies, liberated a 1942 Chevy RHD for the drive. It had been shipped from the States as part of the Allied support for my country, which had been suffering from attacks along the coast by the Japanese. Damn decent of the seppos, and I almost felt bad about nicking it.

The ute resembled a Jeep, built like a brick shithouse with sturdy tires I hoped could handle the rough terrain, wheel ruts, and patches of sand along what would one day become the Great Northern Highway. [14]

Back then, it wasn’t so great.

At first, the Chevy did pretty well! But long after we’d passed Yalgoo and entered the outback proper, where there isn’t fuckall but scrub, red dirt, and stunted trees, the damn thing sucked up the last of the petrol. It sputtered and rolled to a stop.

Were we even halfway there? Fuck if I knew. The gauges were broken.

Mags said, “The last of the spare gas cans better get us there.”

I said, “That was the last can.”

Mags pounded her fists against the steering wheel and called it a string of creative names.

I said, “That isn’t helping.”

“It’s helping me!”

“Fair enough. Welcome to Bandywallop.”

“That’s a place?”

“Sure,” I lied. “It’s just outside of Woop-Woop.”[15]

“What the fuck are you talking about?” She popped the hood and got out to check underneath, but that was pointless. The ute was fine, just empty.

I reckoned we’d be about the same in a few hours. “The middle of nowhere, Magpie. East Bumfuck. Have a nice day.”

“Do we got any beer left?”

“There’s a box in the boot.[16] Warm as goat piss by now.”

“Good enough.” Mags wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. The sun was a circle of hate directly overhead. She opened the boot to reveal the last of our supplies: twenty-four bottles of Swan Lager, courtesy of the brewery in Perth. We’d already murdered a couple of boxes. She handed me one and split open a longneck for herself, prying off the top with a ciggie lighter.

I smacked mine against the edge of the passenger-side door with one hand. The cap fell to the cracked, rust-colored earth and bounced once before lying still as death on the dirt. “Cheers!”

“Cheers.” Mags gulped half the bottle. “Let’s get to walking, then.”

“Might as well.”

She hoisted the box onto her shoulder and pushed her sunglasses back to the top of her slippery, sweat-covered nose. “You’re sure it’s this way?”

“Generally speaking.”

Mags frowned. “I am absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of confidence you inspire!” She drained the rest of her bottle and whipped it into the sparse scrub at the roadside.

I sipped from mine and trundled along beside her. “It could be worse, you know.”

“Sure,” she said. “We could be attacked by giant scorpions. Get our fuckin’ eyeballs and brains torn out. Have our flesh eaten by bacteria while we’re still conscious. We could—”

“You know what, Mags? Forget I mentioned it.” I took a sip. “You don’t regret coming out here with me, do you?”

“Nah,” she said. “Worst case, we totally fuckin’ die. But there’s no one I’d rather die with, if it comes to that.”

“We won’t die.”

“You seem awfully sure.”

“I had a vision.”

Mags laughed. “Celina, you crack me up. Remind me why I agreed to this in the first place.”

“Because you love me.”

Mags stopped in the middle of the old goat path that wanted to be a road. “Give me a hug.”

I held her for a long time. The sun abused us. The outback stretched before us with no end in sight. When she finally let me go, she said, “These beers will run out before sunset.”

“If you keep pounding them like that, they will.”

She let loose that psychopathic laugh of hers and set off in what vaguely seemed like the right direction.

I don’t know how we made it. The sky and the booze and the flat, dark-ochre ground all melt together in my memory. The sun rose and set at least once, and we stopped to sleep beside a meager campfire for a few hours. But we pressed on.

Eventually, we stumbled onto the spot: Yarrabubba. It’s one of the oldest asteroid collisions on Earth. The impact site is 70 kilometers wide, and it goes back 2.2 billion years. That sounds dramatic, but all there was when Mags and I got to it was a hill, a little red hill to mark the crash.

We climbed it.

We were out of beer by then, and the soles of our shoes were worn down to our blisters. Reasonable people would have died, but we weren’t them.

Besides, the fortuneteller told us we would make it.

☠️

Mags’ Ring

Money, boyfriends, empires. I used to think they meant something. I thought they were things you accumulated to prove you had power over your life.

Then I met Mags. Her raggedy arse didn’t have shit. She had the clothes on her back, and they were falling apart. But none of that seemed to bother her.

One night, when we were cuddling in our room upstairs at Bert’s club, I asked about her ring. I’d never seen her without it. With her hand in mine, she told me.

Imagine finding out your best friend will outlive you by at least a century.[17]

Sure, I felt bad for myself. Give me a break. I was barely twenty, and Mags couldn’t have been more than seventeen. At first, all I could think about was getting old and watching her go on without me when there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do about it.

I turned her ring around her finger. You couldn’t take it off, and I’d tried a few times to test that theory. It was like once she put it on, it was on for life. Mags wore it like a wedding ring on her left ring-finger. I asked if she ever thought about fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years down the road.

“All the time,” she said. Her tail moved along my waist and hips like a feathered hand caressing my curves. “Someday, I’ll say goodbye to you for the last time. Same with all my friends, family, and any pets I ever have. It isn’t a happy thought.”

“I’d like to live with you forever.”

Mags wrapped her arms and legs around me in a full-body hug. “Forever’s a long time,” she said. “Too rich for my blood. How would you feel about the next 180 years?”

She was joking. Mags didn’t think anything of it, and she fell asleep next to me. For hours, I laid next to her, watching her tail occasionally flick and twitch while she dreamed. I thought about how nice her last sentence sounded.

That’s a long way of saying how we came to be at the fortuneteller’s table.

☠️

The Fortuneteller

Mags took a seat in the fortuneteller’s shop. “Are you a gypsy?” Even at eighteen, she was a paragon of tact.

“Mags,” I chided, taking a seat of my own.

“What? Isn’t that the word?”

The old woman across the table neither frowned nor smiled. Even in the dim light, her colorful shawl and the Indian print on her flowing dress spoke of sensuality and joy, but I suspect she was reserved when confronted with strangers and possible fools such as we were. Mags’ bluster didn’t make a ripple in the pool of dusky calm. “We prefer the term Romani.” The fortuneteller lit a cone of incense and set it in a pewter holder. The pewter had been shaped into a network of vines, all interwoven, and a pleasant blue-grey smoke drifted through the openings between their leaves. “What can I do for you?

I said, “We’re searching for magic.”

At that, she smiled. Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight, and the silver rings on her fingers did, too. Despite her age, I thought she looked quite beautiful and alive. Playful, in a quiet way, seasoned by decades. “Magic is everywhere. I can point you to it, but you need to see it for yourself.”

Mags lit a fag. “That sounds about right. We’re looking for a spell, but I don’t think it exists anywhere on Earth.”

The fortuneteller set a deck of cards on the table, facedown. “Where do you think it is?”

“The dreamtime,” I said. “We were hoping you could point us in the right direction.” I laid a trio of gold coins on the red velvet cloth. “If you would be so kind.”

At that, the woman raised an eyebrow. Without looking at them, she swept the coins off the table and into a brass bowl where they landed with a clink, clink, clink. She set the bowl on a small, circular table next to her, in a clear spot surrounded by strange bones, bundles of dried herbs, and a few piles of books. “That’s an odd place to search for a spell. Why don’t we start with a three-card spread?” She fanned the cards, still facedown, and swept the back of one withered hand across them. “Point to three cards.”

Mags reached to pick up one of them, but the fortuneteller’s hand blocked her. “Don’t touch them. Just point.”

Mags acquiesced then let me choose the next two.

The fortuneteller flipped one over. “The first card,” she said, “is where you start on this journey. This is the Two of Cups. It shows a partnership, perhaps even love between two soulmates. The universe has positive energy to send you, but you must find balance and harmony to receive it. The two people pictured here seek a deeper commitment.”

The old woman’s skeletal fingers moved to the second card and turned it over. “This is the next stage of your journey.”

“Oh, great,” said Mags. “He looks like he’s been stabbed to death.”

“I suppose. The Ten of Swords can be read a few ways. One possible message is that the dying person failed to listen to her own better judgment, and her lapse is responsible for her suffering.”

Mags flicked the ash from the end of her ciggie. “We’re fucked.”

I said, “Shush, Magpie. What’s the other interpretation?”

“The death of the ego. Next to the Two of Cups, it might mean that these two who seek unity must give up their idea of being two different people—the idea that they are individual egos.”

Mags purred. “I like that one better.”

I patted her knee. “Go on. What’s number three?”

“Four of Wands,” said the old woman. “Is one of you having a birthday party?”

Mags and I laughed. “Not yet,” I said, “but there is a question of birthdays. Who are these four women dancing?”

“The elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Here, they dance in unison, celebrating. They share their joy with each other.”

I said, “That’s exactly what we had in mind.”

Mags leaned in. “You’re saying these lovers need to have their separateness destroyed, but after that, they dance in a field of joy?”

The fortuneteller said, “That’s one way of looking at it.”

I kissed Mags on the cheek. “It’s a happy ending!”

She put her arm around me. “I’m a bit concerned about getting stabbed to death, but I do like the after party.” She nuzzled me, then asked the old woman, “How do we get there?”

“I’m afraid the cards won’t tell you that.”

I took a few more coins from my purse and placed them on the table. “We understand. But we’d like to hear your opinion.”

Again, a hand that looked like tree branches wrapped in wrinkled leather swept the coins into a bowl. Clink, clink, clink. “I see you two young ladies are serious. Give an old woman a moment.”

She pressed her palms on the table and rose from her chair. I’ve never seen anyone move so slowly. She made her way to the bookshelf that took up the entire wall behind her. The lights weren’t so good—just a few candles near the card-reading table—so I couldn’t see what she picked up until she came back, step by eternal step.

She set a brass stand on the table. The metal picked up every sliver of light the candles cared to throw at it. She set a glass globe in the stand. Freed from her hands, it also reveled in the candlelight. I swear I saw a million stars inside.

I didn’t notice how long it took the fortuneteller to regain her seat, and the only thing that snapped me back to the present moment was Mags squeezing my hand.

Clouds of incense drifted through the dusk and surrounded the crystal ball. They swirled for a moment, then buggered off to parts unknown.

The woman said, “The magic you seek is older than humanity.” She extended a bony finger toward Mags. “But you wear this magic now.”

“Damn right,” said Mags. “Great-gramma’s magic.”

“Not just hers. She harnessed what came before.”

“Before what?”

The fortuneteller ignored Mags’ question and closed her eyes. She placed both hands on the glass orb.

Mags gave me a look that said, What the fuck? But I raised one finger to my lips.

The fortuneteller spoke ten words that would forever change my life. “The red hill,” she said. “You must go to the red hill.”

☠️

The Red Hill

“Here we are!” Mags fell onto the hilltop and laughed. “This legendary Barlangi Rock can kiss my fat white arse! Can’t even get a burger out here.” She sprawled. “Goddamn, I’m tired.”

I curled up beside her in the red dirt. It glittered with shards of quartz, though most of the surrounding outcrops were granite. “Shush, Magpie. I’ll sing a song, and you sing with me.”

It was all I could do to maintain a singing voice. In forty-eight hours, I’d only had a dozen beers while stumbling down that piece of shit road. The Swannies dehydrated me, but they also numbed me to that fate.

Mags whispered between cracked lips. “That old woman didn’t know dick. We’re gonna fuckin’ die out here.”

“Probably,” I said. “But as long as we’re dying, sing this one with me.”

Mags held my hand. “You start.”

In the stories Mum used to tell, the ancestors sang the world into being—the Earth and all the plants and animals, even the First People. The Hindus have a similar idea: Om, the primal sound, a vibration that kicked the universe into being. I like that idea, that everything we are and touch is music.

Mags likes it, too. You know how she is. If there’s anything she loves more than kicking arse and liberating cargo, it’s music.

If the ancients could create the world through song, then it made sense that we could contact them by singing. We just needed to speak to them in their language, right?

Back in ’42, Mags hadn’t mastered as many instruments as she can play these days, but she was off to a good start, and she had a beautiful voice. I think about times I used to eavesdrop on her singing after hours at the club, and it makes me cry. Not a sad cry, just overwhelmed. That feeling you get when someone touches your heart, but it’s too much, and it all spills out of you.

Atop the red hill at Yarrabubba, we sang together. I started with a tune Mum sang at bedtime. She claimed it was the song that sang the moon and stars into being. Overhead, the sky faded from bright blue to black. Every star in the southern hemisphere sprang to life, and the moon rose over the horizon like a bride in a glowing white gown.

We entered the dreamtime.

☠️

The Crash

More than two billion years ago, a meteorite smashed into what is now Western Australia. I remember it well. I was there.

Mags and I were singing, lying on our backs in the rusty dirt, when the moon and stars came out. Another light twinkled into view. Within seconds, it grew so bright it outshone the moon.

Mags gripped my hand, but she didn’t stop singing. I reckon she knew, as well as I did, that it wasn’t a star, and there was no way we could run far enough away to survive before it hit.

You might imagine the sound of an incoming meteor as many different things: a whistle like a bomb dropped from a plane, a scream of increasing volume, a roar. But what struck Yarrabubba that night began as a harmony, a three-part harmony between me and Mags and that wayward stone. I took the alto, as low and sultry as I could manage. The meteor took the energetic tenor. Mags belted out a soprano I didn’t know was in her range. The fourth harmony, the bass, was the explosion of that massive space rock slamming into Earth.

But a couple billion years ago, Straya wasn’t even Straya. It was just a section of one massive super-continent where all the places we know today were a single land mass, surrounded by one sea. Australia didn’t completely split from what’s now Antarctica until 30 million years ago.

Still, the asteroid impact shook the continent down to Earth’s mantle. The land it shot into the sky changed the weather. The tsunamis it generated reshaped coastlines around the planet. The fire it started burned for years.

As for me and Mags? It blasted our bodies into atoms and scattered them through wind, water, and earth, all across the globe.

We were proper fucked.

☠️

The Song

I can’t say for sure how long it took for me to realize what had happened. On a geologic scale that big, little things like years don’t seem so bloody relevant. But at some point, I heard a song, faintly flickering at first, like the light from a candle on a peak past the horizon. I felt drawn to it, but I couldn’t move. Hell, I didn’t even have a body. I was just one little atom spinning in the darkness.

Then I realized it was Mags. Her voice, though far away, came from all around me. I tried to say something, but I had no mouth. For what might have been a hundred million years, I tried to move closer to that song, wherever its source might be.

That was a dumb idea. Eventually it sank in. I wasn’t in one place any more than Mags’ voice was. I was all over the place. I wasn’t just one atom, but all my atoms, strewn across the bloody planet. And if that was true, I reckoned, then it was probably true for Mags, too.

I felt like giving up and drifting on the wind and waves.

But I don’t know if you’ve heard Mags sing before. Maybe you’re not a fan of the Psycho 78s or her solo album, or the stuff she’s been doing with Small Flowers lately. Or that new B-side she did with Dumpster Kittens. But I am, and it’s because when Mags sings, everything makes sense to me. Even when she sings about how senseless and stupid everything is, it’s like she’s singing just for me, lending her voice to what needs to be said, even if everyone else is afraid to put it into words.

So, I did what any sensible sod would do. I sang along.

Fragments of me recalled how Mum’s people thought of Straya in terms of songlines: a musical geography of the landscape and the stars above, rich with our history and destiny ages before the written word or printed maps of any kind.

After a moment that might have been seconds or millennia, Maggie’s song came closer, or I came closer to it.

Then it stopped.

“Celina? Celina, can you hear me?”

They were the first words I’d heard her speak in eons. “Magpie! What is happening to us?”

“I miss you.”

If I had a face, I would have smiled. “No, you don’t. You hit me right on target, every time.”

Laughter followed. “I think I sang a trillion verses!”

“Me too.”

“Keep singing with me. It’s got to be our only way out of this.”

I agreed. “You take the melody. I’ll harmonize.”

From all around me, a purr. “I almost got my hands back. It’s all about the vibration.”

“Then let’s vibrate, baby. Take it away.”

She did.

Over the next few hundred million years, we improvised. With time to spare, we harmonized every possible combination of the twelve-tone scale in every imaginable rhythm. Then we started in on semitones and microtones. Together we wove incessant song while continents split apart and drifted into place. As the world began to take its current shape, so did we.

No longer scattered so thin, my atoms gathered together. Looking back on it now, I realize that the waves of our song rippled across the planet, and our atoms rode those waves, like when you shake a blanket across a bed to bring it into shape. We shook the entire Earth, and tiny pieces of us began to coalesce into coherence.

That’s not to say it all went smoothly. I witnessed multiple mass extinctions, even more asteroid collisions, and the death of countless species. But life always came back, in all its myriad forms, in the oceans, air, and on the land.

I know it’s selfish of me, but despite all those deaths and rebirths, there was only one life I cared about, and she sang with me through it all.

If you ever wonder why my cranky kitty and I are inseparable to this day, keep in mind that for a couple billion years, all we tried to do was get back together.

Eventually, the shreds of my body realigned. The same happened for Mags. All the time singing. Then there was the two of us, and I slipped my hand into hers in a gesture that must have taken an epoch or two.

“Celina,” she said.

“Maggie.”

No other words were needed.

How long that moment lasted, I can’t say. But we weren’t done yet. We had not met the rainbow serpent.

Goorialla, some tribes called him. He’s credited with many things. Some are true. Some are not. But one thing is for sure. That motherfucker is gigantic!

The enormous snake appeared, and he must have been a kilometer of scales, rippling in iridescent colors, slithering around us until we were enclosed within his coils.

Above that spiraling cage, he reared his head. I was sure we were done for. His tongue flicked in and out of his mouth, smelling us. Mags held me close, and the reptilian tongue whipped us both, taking in our scent. I did not let go.

The serpentine face withdrew to a great height above us, like a mountain, but the voice emanating from its open jaws felt as near as anything I’d ever felt, like the way Mags’ song had come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. The monster god spoke four words. “Why are you here?”

Mags almost answered first, but I put a finger to her lips. “We want to be together.”

“You are in the space of sacred songs. What makes you mortals think you have the right?” The tongue flicked at us again, smelling us and rudely slapping us about.

It stunk like hell, and I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. I clung to Mags.

She smacked the giant tongue. “Hey, fuckface! You call the tune, and we’ll sing it. We got a couple billion years of practice, so bring it on!”

That wasn’t the nicest thing to say to an ancient ancestral deity, and I was sure he would swallow us whole and shit us out onto some ethereal landscape as amorphous globs of snake poo.

But he just laughed, if you can imagine a snake laughing.

Mags gave me a squeeze and raised her voice. “Listen, you legless freak! We were just getting warmed up. Now call the tune!”

Maybe he was amused that a tiny mortal considered herself the equal of gods. But his coils undulated around us, and he called the tune. It was that tune—a song without a proper name but older than time itself—that welded the magic of Mags’ ring to me. And believe me, we sang that tune like it was the last one ever written.

For as many years as we had spent trying to reunite, nothing prepared me for the moment where our bodies and souls merged into one person wearing the same ring. It was like Mags and I were overlaid on top of each other, and for just one second, my ring-finger and her ring-finger shared the same space and time, enclosed by the silver band her great-gramma made. The rainbow serpent encircled us, and his scales turned the same silver color as Mags’ ring. The magic that promised to keep Mags alive for two hundred years became a magic I shared.

Then the serpent opened his mouth, and his fangs were also gleaming silver. Beyond them, only blackness. In a strike as swift as lightning, he swallowed us whole. The darkness was everywhere and everything, with nothing beyond its edges.

☠️

The Waterhole

We awoke at night in a pool of fresh water near Perth, sputtering and wiping our faces. I knew it was near Perth because I saw the lights of Fremantle Harbour, from which I’d sailed a dozen times.

Mags said, “Where are we?” She found a handhold on the side of the hole and pulled herself to dry land. She held out one hand for me.

I grasped it and followed her up. “Goorialla is the god of waterholes. He travels between them.”

“Gooey who?”

“Goorialla. That giant snake you just cursed out.”

Mags’ tail snapped every which way to rid itself of water. “That fuckin’ guy.”

“We’re lucky he didn’t eat us.”

“He’s lucky I didn’t eat him! But I will say this.” She scooped a handful of water from the pool and lapped it up. “Damned decent of him not to puke us up on that bloody crater in the middle of nowhere.”

“He’s not all bad.” I practically inhaled water from my cupped hands.

We sated our thirst. “Mags? My oldies’ place must be just a klick from here, right over that hill. Why don’t we stop in for a cuppa and a lie down?”

Mags collapsed on the rock. “I’m so buggered, I could pass out right here.”

“Me too. Or we could enjoy some cozy pillows and curl up next to each other. Maybe sing ourselves to sleep.”

Mags lifted her prone figure onto one elbow. “I’ve had about enough of singing for the next ten trillion years,” she lied. “But let’s go cuddle.”

☠️

Gratitude

In Mum’s native language, people don’t say please or thank you. The words don’t even exist. It’s true that I think a few polite words go a long way toward helping everyone get along without killing each other, but I also see the wisdom in not relying on words alone.

Mum’s family didn’t omit those words out of rudeness, but because they felt gratitude should be demonstrated. If someone did something nice for you, then you bloody well did nice things for them, too! That was how it worked. You couldn’t just say thanks and expect that to be the end of it. You had an obligation to help those who helped you.

Mum and Dad lived that idea. By modern standards, they were rough and inelegant with each other in the way they spoke. But not a day went by without one of them demonstrating love. It might have been Mum reserving the best cut of meat for him, or Dad brushing her hair by candlelight after dinner. It might have been the way she never pressed him to talk about what was troubling him, or the way he always told her everything once he simmered down.

It was the opposite of the powers from Europe who dressed up their actions in pretty words on their mad quest to conquer the world. They liked flowery speeches about nobility and liberty, but Europe’s hearts were filled with greed, not love, and their words rang hollow.

Mags and I always saw eye-to-eye on that. She’ll never have a career as a diplomat. She prefers abusive language. But she always understood that gratitude isn’t a word, but an action.

After our experience in the dreaming, we had no debate over whether we should do something. It was only a question of what we could do to show our gratitude. The spirits of the dreamtime had granted our wish, and though we were a bit too young to understand all the implications of that gift, we knew we needed to repay the ancients who gave it to us.

It took a while to get it sorted. In fact, it took nearly two years. But in 1944, Mags and her gramma reunited in the wake of the Allied Operation Overlord. Magpie traveled to France and saw firsthand the destruction of not just the country of her birth, but of her gramma’s estate.[18] She resolved to make a new home for women displaced by war, and she wrote to me in the States to ask if I would join her.

I didn’t even finish the letter before I knew I was in. We were still a couple of hot-headed young sheilas, and rough as guts back then. But we had an opportunity to create something new in a place where all hope had been lost. And maybe—just maybe—we could make enough difference in the world to show our gratitude to the powers who brought us together.

I booked my ticket overseas, and a new chapter began.


[1] “Cot case” meaning an insane person, presumably for occupying a cot in a primitive mental hospital. Also used as a derogatory term for any inebriated or otherwise mentally incapacitated person.

[2] Richrath, Gary Dean, et. al. (1978). Time for Me to Fly. On You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tune a Fish. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[3] Richrath, Gary Dean. (1980). Take It on the Run. On High Infidelity. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[4] “Chips” are known as French fries in the States.

[5] “Flat” meaning apartment.

[6] “Pissed” meaning drunk, not angry.

[7] Celina is recounting events from the end of Curtain of Fire, from her perspective. That story also introduced Bert and his club, and his scene which Celina retells here. Celina was 17 in 1938 when she met Mags, despite lying about her age, and Mags was 14, turning 15 that November.

[8] The Australian government did not recognize indigenous people as citizens until 1967, with the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals). Even then, nothing about the law gave the First People full rights of citizenship, such as suffrage. The constitutional change merely granted the Australian government the power to make laws regarding indigenous peoples and count them in the national census.

[9] “Seppo” meaning people of the United States. Historians disagree over whether the term derives from “separatists”—because the USA separated from England—or because seppo is short for “septic tank”, which rhymes with “Yank” as in “Yankee”. As to why Australians and people in the UK use rhyming slang, that’s an entirely different subject.

[10] “Natter” meaning a chat.

[11] Celina is summarizing events told in more detail in Curtain of Fire. Mags next recalls a conversation she had with Jack in that story.

[12] “A sausage short of a barbecue”, much like the saying “not playing with a full deck”. In other words, mentally deficient.

[13] Mags is recounting experiences mentioned in Curtain of Fire. The difficulty of finding decent socks during the anarchist uprising in Barcelona in the 1930s is documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Socks might not sound like a big deal, but a lack of clean socks contributed to horrifying foot diseases.

[14] “Ute” meaning a utility vehicle, which could be anything from a Jeep to a light pickup truck.

[15] Bandywallop and Woop-Woop are remote, imaginary towns, similar to “Hicksville” in the States.

[16] “There’s a 24-pack in the trunk.”

[17] See Great-Gramma Magdalena’s explanation of this phenomenon in Curtain of Fire.

[18] Weight of the Universe shows this moment in a flashback and tells a story about life at the home Mags and Celina helped create.

seven short poems

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These seven seven-line poems go with a new short story called The Singing Spell, which should be ready to share soon. The subjects relate to the story, and the first letters of each line spell out the poem’s title. It’s not a form I usually work in, but I thought it would be fun to try something different.

PATCHES

Pressed close to the ground,
a solitary huntress hungers
to taste what scurries and forages unaware.

Calico colors—brown, black, and white—
hide her in the sun-dappled forest floor.

Everything comes down to
survival.

BILLION

Before history,
I knew you
like a light or a
lyric or the
iridescence of a hummingbird.

Only now,
nothing separates us.

NEBULAE

Nurseries of infant stars,
expectant giants and
black holes hungering for birth,
ushered into a theater of
light and violent gravity where
all who ever lived await
eternity’s epilogue.

MINERAL

Maybe next time,
I come back a stone.
Nowhere to go or
escape, just
rock.

Alabaster.
Limestone.

SERPENT

Sometimes you need to shed
everything to find the
right skin.

Pent-up explosions
emerge as something new.

No one ever mourned
the cell she escaped.

FORTUNE

Fate remains silent,
only speaking in unsolved mysteries.

Road signs vanish, and
travelers lose their way
until that unexpected
night, when
everything at last makes sense.

HIGHWAY

How we got here
is less important than why.

Go as far as your
heart can take you, and
when you reach the
arid edge of time,
you will find me.

indie box: Fran

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Fran is the female counterpart to Jim Woodring’s Frank, a somewhat traditional “funny animal” cartoon character who lives in a completely untraditional world of mayhem, magical beings, mysterious objects, and massive acid trips. It’s a world where even when Woodring shows you exactly what is happening, you still wonder what the hell is happening! Frank stories are unpredictable and open to interpretation, and the Fran graphic novel is no exception.

Things start out simply enough. Fran and Frank are living in apparent marital bliss, where a morning of play fighting and teasing is just an expression of their mutual affection.

But when Frank and his pet chase down a creep who stole Frank’s sketchbook, they unearth a hole that leads to a subterranean cavern filled with presumably stolen wonders. Frank, being amoral or at least morally ambiguous, loots the cave and takes home the booty.

One of the treasures is a projector that, when worn on the head, projects the wearer’s memories like a movie. When Fran refuses to put it on her head, Frank loses his temper and screams at her.

As a result, she leaves him. When Frank realizes she’s gone, he is heartbroken, and beats himself up for being such a jerk.

The rest of the story primarily concerns Frank’s quest to follow Fran’s trail into the psychedelic wilderness and reunite with her. But there is more to Fran than meets the eye, and we discover several things about her that suggest she had good reason to not want her memories exposed to Frank via the projector. She violently slaughters some creeps who assault her, shacks up with a guy with a freaky face, and ultimately uses a shape-shifting deception to ditch Frank once again.

Frank doesn’t take it well. He lets loose a howl that brings down the heavens… or something!

From there, things get really weird. Frank’s journey takes unexpected twists and turns through a deranged cosmos loosely governed by cartoon physics and hallucinatory horror. Like the previous novel-length Frank adventures in Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals, Fran will keep you guessing about what could possibly happen next, and leave you pondering what it all means at the end.

Collector’s Guide: The 2013 hardcover edition of Fran is usually available at MyComicShop and on Amazon for about $20, and comes in a Kindle/Comixology version, too.

indie box: Patience

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Patience is my favorite work by Daniel Clowes. It tells a relatively (for Clowes) straight-forward yet suspenseful science-fiction tale. Having deconstructed the superhero genre in his previous work, The Death-Ray, which was a pastiche of multiple comic-strip conventions, Clowes gave us Patience in a more traditional narrative style. Despite that, this book subverted my expectations many times, and I love that about it.

The story begins with the quiet slice-of-life drama you might expect if you’ve read Clowes’ Ghost World or Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. Humdrum everyman characters encounter mostly typical problems while filled with a persistent existential malaise. I usually find stories about average people to be quite tedious. Real life is average enough for me, thanks. So, I began to wonder what all the hype was with Patience, because there are about twenty pages of this stuff before the story really kicks off.

But after an unexpected tragedy, the story shifts tone and becomes a mystery, and I began to wonder just what kind of book I was reading. Then the story jumps into the year 2029, which has been one of my favorite years for science-fiction tales since the first Terminator movie came out, and the tone radically shifts again. About forty pages in, our humdrum everyman has undergone a dramatic emotional change as he sets eyes on the catalyst for the rest of the tale.

Okay, now we’re into exciting territory! A force of nature! But the problem for the protagonist is that despite his delusions of grandeur, he is still a bumbling, incompetent lunkhead. Full of raging desire to set the world straight by exacting his revenge, he only makes more of a mess of everything. His bungling ineptitude reminds me of the 2007 film Timecrimes which, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching without reading about it or seeing the trailer first.

The visual style of this book feels like an homage to the brightly colored pulp comic books of a bygone age, the kind of books Clowes also paid tribute to in David Boring, which included excerpts from an imaginary superhero comic about The Yellow Streak. But there’s one convention he repeatedly messes with: He places all or most of many speech balloons outside the panel borders, cutting off their edges so the dialogue is incomplete. The result is a sense that the dialogue is less important than the protagonist’s relentless interior monologue as he narrates the story in captions which are never cut off.

Throughout the adventure, the hero becomes increasingly deranged, experiencing wild moods swings and psychedelic visions. These are shown in a style that feels more like the trippy underground comix of the 1970s than their pulp predecessors.

While Patience employed some common science-fiction tropes, it excelled at keeping me guessing about what would come next and how it would all play out. Several times I thought I might have it all figured out, only to be proven wrong. And that’s the fun. With all the plot twists and turns, gradual character reveals, and the tonal and stylistic shifts, Patience kept me riveted to the page.

Collector’s Guide: Patience is usually out of stock at MyComicShop, but you can get it on Amazon for about $22.    

indie box: Action Philosophers

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Action Philosophers uses humor, exaggeration, and sight gags to spice up a subject that many people avoid just because it’s too damn boring. Writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey bring much-needed life to the topic in their irreverent yet educational takes on many of the most influential philosophers, from ancient times to modern.

Consider Bodhidharma, an important figure in the development of both Zen and martial arts. Did you think a lesson on Zen was going to be a bunch of boring monks sitting around meditating? Think again!

Then there’s Isaac Luria, portrayed in an homage to the sorcerer Dr. Strange of Marvel Comics fame.

In their quest to make philosophy exciting, the creative team pays other tributes to action-packed comic book styles, including Jack Kirby’s pulse-pounding visuals.

Pop culture references abound, such as imagining David Hume using the old Saturday Night Live catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” I’ve read Hume before, and it was nowhere near as fun as this version.

The conventions of comic book art lend themselves to illustrating some abstract concepts, like this page where objects and people disappear because the philosopher isn’t thinking about them.

And why suffer through tedious history books about Francis Bacon when a handy infographic does the trick?

This is a fun series, and I thank reader Ergozen for recommending it a few months ago. The Tenth Anniversary “uber-edition” collects all the material so that the philosophers appear in chronological order, but it’s often out of stock or exorbitantly priced. However, you can find a similar complete collection on Amazon at a reasonable price.

You can also explore more fun and educational works at Ryan Dunlavey’s site, including a lengthy sample of his history of comic books.

Reflections on Writing The Crystal Core

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UPDATE: In October 2020, I published The Crystal Core as part of the collection The Singing Spell, but you can still read it for free on this blog. Here are some personal reflections about writing the story.

Some of Mags’ adventures began as basic plot ideas, some grew out of an idea for a scene or a piece of dialogue, and some started as a concept about an object or situation I thought it would be fun to write about. The Crystal Core is an example of all three of these possibilities combined.

The plot inspiration goes back to The Battle of Vesta 4, where I realized I had given my pirate crew a too-powerful object: the multidimensional “triglyph”. If I had included the triglyph in that story, the conflict would have been far too easy for the crew to overcome. Rather than address the situation, I decided to ignore it for a while and come back to it later—hopefully with a plausible explanation. Along the way, I wrote 1,000 words of notes on possible narrative paths to take with the triglyph.

While writing Small Flowers, I planted the seeds for the triglyph’s return. Plutonian questioned Mags about why she didn’t use it, and she revealed she had forgotten about it. The epilogue ended on a minor cliffhanger. Mags discovered the triglyph was missing from her armory where she placed it at the end of The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. By then, I’d reworked my original notes into an idea to use the triglyph to terraform Titan.

But as I mentioned in my reflections about Small Flowers, I watched a ton of documentaries that influenced that story and the shorter pieces published with it. I’ve been reading about space, stars, and black holes since I was in third or fourth grade, but I don’t recall learning about the diamond cores of white dwarf stars until early 2020. My mind was blown by the idea that these huge diamonds are burning in outer space, but I didn’t know what to do with that concept. So, I asked a friend what she would do with a huge crystal from space.

She said, “Build a radio.”

That was the moment my plot ideas and my “high concept” intersected, and I knew I needed to write that story. I started cranking out more notes and scenes around the concept, but I was confused by some aspects of crystal radios.

Fortunately, a member of my writers’ workshop (the illustrious Jeff Duntemann) is a ham-radio enthusiast, so I called him. He cleared up my misconceptions, enlightened me about a few missing pieces of the puzzle, and showed me where I needed to patch up the science to achieve some minimum standard of plausibility.

This is one of the best things about having writers, artists, and musicians as friends. I can call them unexpectedly and, without much preamble or small talk, say crazy things such as, “Can you help me build a giant crystal radio from a star core?” That’s how I end up having intriguing and educational conversations for an hour or more about things most people never think about.

The Crystal Core became a unique episode in Mags’ adventures. It has long passages of narration about terraforming Titan and building the giant space radio, scenes where I flexed my prose muscles to see if I could write about science but keep it poetic, beautiful, and interesting. Those scenes alternate with discussions that focus on dialogue and character interaction.

But I wanted to do something even weirder with the story: use multiple narrators. I wanted to get inside the characters’ streams of consciousness when they encountered the new rulers of Titan and got their minds messed with, telepathically.

I’ve read a ton of science-fiction prose and comic books that did similar things, but I sometimes find them difficult to follow. I like challenging narrative techniques in prose and film and comics, but I don’t like it when I feel the author is wanking instead of clearly telling a story in the most effective way possible. As I’ve written before in essays on narrators and points of view, the choice to get creative with narrators or structure needs to be more than a demonstration of how clever the author is. I’m not impressed by being incomprehensible. I’m impressed when the choice of a narrator or structure is perfect because any other choice would not tell the story as effectively.

You can judge for yourself how well I lived up to my own standard. Sometimes my reach exceeds my grasp, and that’s a normal part of growing and improving as a writer. Much of my writing in Mags’ adventures is a journey toward being able to live up to my own expectations about what makes a good story, or what makes beautiful prose, or what is entertaining to read. I feel I get closer to my ideals as the series progresses and, like most writers, I’m sometimes frustrated that I didn’t quite have the “chops” to do justice to some of my earliest stories. But with each story, I work on improving everything from descriptive language to comedic timing, from plotting to character development, and the myriad other things that make up a great story.

The Crystal Core continues a trend that began in the opening scene of Blind Alley Blues, which is a diary entry from Mags. In Small Flowers, I incorporated the idea that Mags writes letters to her somewhat-deceased great-gramma, which gives Mags more opportunities to narrate events in her unique voice. These letters have often been “behind the scenes” projects that never saw print. I wrote a good letter for Voyage of the Calico Tigress, but it didn’t quite fit the overall structure, so I cut it from the final version. With Small Flowers, I tried to weave the letters into the story in integral ways, and The Last Patches Story completely hands over the narrative reins to Mags so she can tell an imaginary bedtime tale about Patches. (One of my original ideas for that story involved using Patches as a first-person narrator, but I didn’t care for how that played out.)

With The Crystal Core, I wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible with using other members of the pirate crew as narrators, too. Other than Hang My Body on the Pier, which featured excerpts from Great-Gramma’s memoirs, Crystal Core is the first story where anyone but Mags gets a shot at narrating. Dr. Plutonian narrates a scene and, like the scene of Mags’ narration that follows it, it takes place while the telepathic octopuses are disassembling his mind. I set myself the challenge of showing this confusing state of mind while making it absolutely clear to the reader who was talking, what was happening, and why.

I feel like it worked, and initial feedback told me it worked, so I considered why it worked. The text contains details that help, such as Mags’ straight-up telling the readers exactly what she thinks is happening to her mind. But in terms of remaining true to a character’s unique voice when slipping into first-person internal monologue, I think the key to success was the amount of time I have spent living in these characters’ heads for more than half a decade now.

They might have started out as comic-book caricatures, but over the years these characters have become more complex and real people to me. I suspect any writer who spends a serious amount of time on long-form stories will tell you the same thing. When you, as an author, share and invest so much of your life and your thoughts and your feelings with your characters, they undergo what I think of as the Pinocchio Effect. At some magical point or phase in the journey, the characters stop being puppets on your strings and become real to you. They take on a life of their own. They place demands on you. They help you understand yourself in relation to them. You know they are mere fictions, but like the golem of Jewish mythology or the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, they become imbued with their own lifeforce, their own desires, their own path in this world.

I’m lucky, compared to some novelists. Many novelists go through the pain of creating and bringing to life a set of characters that will never be seen again after the novel’s final page. But because I am writing an open-ended, ongoing series with roots that stretch for hundreds of millions of years into the past, and branches that extend beyond the end of our universe, I don’t feel any need to finish working with my characters or close the final page on them. I have all the time in the world to get to know them—or at least, all the time I have remaining on this planet.

By the time I got around to giving Plutonian a scene to narrate, I had spent so many years with him that I felt confident I could write in his voice. He delivered an extended monologue in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX where he told Mags about an event in his past. That was the first scene I ever workshopped, about four years ago now. I love a good monologue, but that’s different from being inside the character’s head, which is what happens in The Crystal Core.

I didn’t know for sure how The Crystal Core would end when I started drafting scenes, but my workshoppers will attest to the fact that I am a big believer in writing the ending before the story is finished. As a writer, I’m not interested in taking a mysterious journey into the unknown by simply starting with the first page of a story and writing until it feels finished. The mysterious journey is the reader’s experience, not the writer’s.

People who write by the seat of their pants often encounter the same problems over and over again: not knowing where they are headed when they are in the middle of the story, and therefore not knowing what scenes or moments of character development matter, or how to advance their plot. They often arrive at unsatisfactory endings, assuming they don’t give up in frustration halfway through—something that’s happened to many writers I know.

My advice? Once you are clear on the characters and their motivations and central conflicts, write an ending! Know where you are going! Writing without knowing how your story ends is like trying to play a game of darts while wearing a blindfold. You might hit the bullseye out of pure chance or luck, but it’s doubtful. If, instead, you draft the ending earlier in the process, then you know what you are aiming for, and you can construct a story that inevitably leads to that conclusion. Yes, the ending might need to be revised by the time you finish the rest of the story, so don’t sweat too many of the little details. A draft of the ending is only there to give yourself the gift of direction and purpose.

For The Crystal Core, I had about half of it drafted before I tackled the ending, but I knew I needed a firm finish to guide me through the middle. I asked myself, “What would be the most logical and consistent ending for a quasi-intelligent and supremely powerful object, especially after it encountered my octopuses?”

The ending is influenced by my love of science-fiction comic books where the fate of the entire universe (or even the multi-verse) is at stake on a daily basis, and it’s a logical development of my push to constantly expand the scope of possibilities within Mags’ adventures. The Crystal Core, like The Last Patches Story, is an attempt to connect the lives of the pirate crew to huge, cosmic-level events.

It was a fun story to write. I enjoyed expanding the boundaries of what I could do with these characters and their universe, connecting the cosmic experience to the personal stories, and seeing how big I could go in fewer than 8,000 words.

My only question is, “What’s next?”

What Are You Building? Ten Years of Inception

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July 2020 was the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Inception, and the movie generated so many discussions and theories that I doubt anything I say will be new. But it’s one of my favorite films, and upon watching it for the zillionth time this week, a few things came to mind.

The previous time I watched Inception, last year, I put the sound on my little desktop speakers. This time, I put it in my headphones. I’d forgotten how awesome this film originally sounded in the theater when I first saw it with my sister ten years ago. The score by Hans Zimmer is integral to the movie. Like Zimmer did for the more recent Nolan film Dunkirk, he often overlaps multiple scenes with a single piece of music that establishes a thematic unity across the scenes, tying everything together emotionally through sound.

The final scenes of the movie are unified by Zimmer’s piece called Time, the song that begins when Mr. Cobb apparently wakes up on the plane. The song continues until the very last second of the film. Over the years, I’ve come to feel this song is inextricably linked to those scenes. It begins sparsely and quietly. It’s gloomy and melancholy, but it adds layers and a swelling orchestral treatment that sounds to me like triumphant sadness. It doesn’t sound like a happy ending, but neither does it sound like total defeat.

It’s an odd emotional combination, but it makes complete sense for the film’s ending. Why? Because that’s exactly what happens to Cobb. The triumph is that Cobb at last is reunited with his children he loves so much. The sadness is that those are clearly not Cobb’s real children, and he has not returned to reality to be with them. He’s still dreaming about them and has given up on returning to reality so he can experience the happiness of being with them in the dream world. As a writer of fiction, I can relate to that a little too much.

When I first saw the film in the theater, I loved the ambiguous ending. I felt like the film was leaving it up to me to decide whether Cobb was still dreaming or had truly achieved his desire in the real world. But, after repeated viewings, I no longer sense any ambiguity at all. The entire ending is clearly a dream.

Here’s why. First, the kids are in the States, and Cobb is greeted at the airport in the States by the Michael Caine character, Miles. But we know that Miles was in Paris, France the last time we met him. Why is he in the States? Answer: He isn’t. Second, the kids appear exactly as they did in all the times Cobb saw them in dreams—the same poses, the same clothes—only this time, he sees their faces. But if Cobb were in reality, wouldn’t the kids have on different clothes and be older than he remembers them? Third, Cobb asks the kids what they are doing, and they tell him they are building a house on a cliff. Building is something associated in the film with building worlds inside dreams, and the film shows us Saito’s house on a cliff in the previous scene. These aren’t real kids in a yard. They are only dream children.

The music tells us this is both a sad and a happy moment. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting everything you ever hoped for, yet failing to get it at all, because it’s an illusion. Cobb has both abandoned his struggle to truly reunite with his real kids and escaped the fate of becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” Cobb achieves wish fulfillment, but it’s just a dream, not the real thing.

While I no longer feel the ending is at all ambivalent, it does leave me with two questions. First, how much of the film is a dream? Others have speculated that the entire film is a layered dream, and the scenes in Mombasa support that theory, most notably in the way the walls of the city become impossibly narrow passages Cobb must squeeze through only to emerge at a too-coincidental rescue by Saito.

Second, what happens after the film’s ending? Since Cobb is still dreaming, his top will continue spinning after the final frame. But what happens when he returns to the room with the table where he left the top, then finds it is still spinning because he is dreaming? I don’t want to see an Inception II sequel, but I like to imagine the possibilities of what comes next. Will Cobb find the top spinning and lock it away in a safe to preserve the dream’s “reality” like his wife Mal did when they were trapped together in limbo? Or will Cobb see it spinning and decide to wake himself up to pursue fulfilling his desires in reality?

Perhaps the final scene with Saito as an old man in the house on the cliff provides the answer. Saito’s final physical act on camera is reaching for a pistol. But we never see what he does with it. Maybe he put it to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself in the dream to awake in the real world, leaving Cobb to face the decision to return the same way or simply sink into the fantasy fulfillment of the dream. Given Cobb’s established penchant for self-deception, always pretending that he has things “under control” when he clearly doesn’t, it seems likely that he chose the path of fantasy fulfillment within the dream. But I think that when Cobb finds that still-spinning top on the table, he will need to make a choice about either maintaining the easy lie or returning to the difficult truth.

That choice will define his life from then on. Who knows? Maybe Saito really can do what he promised and reunite Cobb with his real children. Maybe he can’t.

So, do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?

Maybe you have a third choice.

Big Box of Comics: Cartoon History of the Universe and More

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My love for Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe goes back almost as many years as this blog, when I first discovered scans of it and later collected many of the original nine single issues. Cartoon History won my heart with a first issue that features some of my favorite topics: the origin of spacetime, the lives of dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals and birds. From there, the series leaves behind the “universe” to tell the stories of human civilizations throughout Africa, India, China, Greece, Rome, and Europe. It’s a monumental tour de force with a great sense of humor, and it’s way more fun than most history classes.

So, this Spring, thanks to this blog’s readers, I expanded my Cartoon History collection with a few collected paperbacks. Three large paperback volumes collect issues 1–7, 8–13, and 14–19 in almost 1,000 pages of awesomeness that start with the Big Bang and end as Columbus sets sail from Spain in 1492.

On top of that, a paperback collection of nearly 400 pages offers The Cartoon History of the United States, which was originally published in two smaller volumes. Gonick adroitly strikes a balance between giving us history’s broad brushstrokes and revealing some of its complex nuances. For example, most Americans might tell you, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but the reality was not so simple. Gonick tackles complex topics like this without ever being dry and academic about it.

He also succeeds in unraveling such complexities in a way that someone in sixth grade or junior high school could read and understand, and it’s a shame that these books are not used as textbooks in high school courses—or even college. Stylistically, this collection shows a departure from the crisp panel layouts and inking style of the “Universe” series, with Gonick abandoning his prior preferences for panel layouts in favor of a more open style and adopting a rougher inking technique that incorporates prior period-specific artwork in some of its panels. This style still works; it’s just noticeably different from what came before.

You’d think that after all that history, we might be done. But I also picked up Gonick’s collaboration with Mark Wheelis: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. Visually, this book looks more like the volumes of United States history, and the material is more scientifically complex. It adeptly delves into not just the history of genetics pioneers such as Gregor Mendel but into the molecular structure of DNA and the inner workings of cells. I’ve read more detailed books on cells, such as the masterful The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell, but this is a book that even your average high-school student should be able to read and understand. It isn’t quite as funny as the “Universe” series, but it’s an enjoyable and informative read that will give you a strong foundation for understanding this topic.

Larry Gonick has done more books than these, but that’s where my store credit ran out! After working my way through all these volumes, I’m left with a profound admiration for his skills at using cartoons as a teaching method, for his ability to discuss complex aspects of history and science in way that renders them comprehensible without sacrificing an awareness of their subtleties, and for his use of humor to turn what could be rather dry reading into an enjoyable and memorable romp through history.

Collector’s Guide:

The original nine single issues of The Cartoon History of the Universe; Rip Off Press, 1978.

The Cartoon History of the Universe volumes 1–3, paperback collections; Doubleday, 1990. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon History of the United States, paperback collection. HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon Guide to Genetics; HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

Larry Gonick’s website, with many more books to explore.

Big Box of Comics: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB

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For a few months in 2013, I had a complete collection of all the individual issues of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle series. When I sold it as a set on Ebay, I knew I would miss it. But thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this summer with this classic series in the form of a full-color, collected edition. Many other reviewers have focused on the dynamic art and the high-energy storytelling that characterize this and other “Fourth World” Kirby stories, so I’d like to discuss a few things that don’t get talked about very much.

But first, this collection is a great way to own all eighteen of the original Kirby issues. It’s complete, compact without reducing the page size, and “remastered” so that the art, ink, and colors are crisp and perfect. It includes all the original covers, which are brilliant works of art on their own, and all the back-up stories about the title character’s childhood. Kirby did amazing double-splash panels for this series that unfortunately get their centers lost in the gutter in a paperback-bound book, but I scanned some of the originals for you way back when.

If there’s one thing that bugs me about owning the series in this format, it’s that same perfection. When I collected the single issues, I settled for many low-cost VG+ and Fine gradings where the paper was severely yellowed (which affected the colors), and the covers had a worn, tattered look with folds and even bits missing around the corners and spines.

Only a complete maniac would claim that as a plus. But I enjoyed it. Having Mister Miracle in its original but degraded printings felt like I was unearthing some prehistoric fossil of primordial comic book awesomeness. In pristine form, it feels more like a current book that should be judged by current standards.

But current standards aren’t quite the right lens to look through for this book. In terms of the garish colors, modern mainstream comics now employ far more sophisticated coloring techniques in even the most run-of-the-mill titles. But in the 1970s, due to the pulp-quality paper, using super-bright primary colors made a whole lot of sense. Many online reviewers praise the bright colors of this collection, but sometimes they seem a bit too bright for the darker, more sinister aspects of life under Darkseid’s fascist reign explored in this series.

A scan from the original series. “Get back to your hovel!”

Also by current standards, Kirby’s treatment of “hip” slang, female characters, and “ethnic” characters might seem clunky and awkward to modern, younger readers. But it’s important to consider the standards of the day and realize Kirby was making a serious effort to be inclusive and progressive in the mainstream. When Mister Miracle began in 1971, it was three years before women in the United States could have credit cards in their own name without a husband co-signing for them. It was four years before the TV show The Jeffersons broke media stereotypes to portray a financially successful black family and their interracially married friends.

In the pages of the Fantastic Four, Kirby had already created Marvel’s first black superhero: the Black Panther. And from his editorial columns in his comics—including his 70s work at Marvel on Devil Dinosaur, the Eternals, and 2001—we know he was genuinely interested in scientific and social trends and in creating stories that reflected not just the current culture but its progress and potential.

Kirby’s idea of an African king as a technologically advanced superhero resonated with movie audiences in recent years. Wyatt Wingfoot, mentioned here, is a Lee/Kirby creation based on Native American Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.

For me, the standout character of Mister Miracle isn’t the lead, but Big Barda. She is lightyears apart from the Sue Storm character in the early Lee/Kirby issues of Fantastic Four, who was constantly talked down to for being female. Sue was a weakling whose biggest power was to go away, at least until John Byrne wrote the series in the 1980s and changed the Invisible “Girl” into the Invisible Woman whose power became formidable.

In contrast, Big Barda totally owns her scenes through force of character. Where Sue Storm was originally a shrinking violet to be protected by the males in her group, Barda is never less than a total bad-ass. She might have a soft spot for the title character, but she never hesitates for one second to beat some ass or carve a path of destruction through her enemies, and she has zero qualms about assuming leadership and telling other characters exactly how shit will go down on her watch.

A scan from the original series. “You kill-crazy she-wolf!”

Barda also has a somewhat evil all-woman crew of warriors — the Female Furie Battalion — with hilarious names like Bernadeth, Gilotina, Lashina, and Stompa. They deal damage in ways you can guess from their names. They’ve got sweet costumes and boss weapons, and they read less like villains and more like your favorite all-girl roller-derby team starring in a modern movie.

A scan from the original series. Just a typical day for the Furies!

Barda is so awesome that I even forgive Uncle Jack for giving her a gratuitous bathtub scene. You know your writer is male when he puts a female character into a naked bathing scene for absolutely zero plot-related reasons. As a male reader who thinks Barda is the greatest thing ever and would bet money that she could even kick Conan’s naked ass, I vote that we give a pass to Kirby for this one. And a pass to me for enjoying it.

A scan from the original series. “I find this kind of moment tranquil and soothing!”

It’s that kind of tension between “great female lead” and “gratuitous female bath scene” that marks this run. Kirby was both a product of his time and way ahead of his time. Mister Miracle stands on the cusp of American history in the 1970s where society was in the midst of a massive and progressive cultural shift, one that even today we have not yet fully realized. I like the direction Kirby was trying to push that shift.

A scan from the original series.

Kirby was a soldier in Europe during World War II, and his portrayal of the oppressive, fascist society on planet Apokolips might be read as a simple indictment of the Third Reich. But Kirby was no stranger to discrimination in the States, having changed his name from the Jewish “Kurtzberg” to “Kirby” to improve his chances of being accepted and making a living.

He was the son of two Austrian-Jewish immigrants in New York in a time when anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and anti-semitism abounded in America. While the Third Reich turned those ideas into a massive extermination program, the Nazis did not invent those ideas, and they had many adherents in the States. Sadly, that is still true today. When I read Kirby’s 1970s works, I sense a subtext that he saw fascism and discrimination not as merely “foreign” problems but ones that troubled many nations, including his own.

A scan from the original series.

It’s easy to read Mister Miracle as a series of simple adventure stories full of gadgets and gimmicky escapes, and Kirby clearly wants us to be entertained, first and foremost. But we would do him a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge the socially progressive ideas he wrapped in that cloak of entertainment. Kirby didn’t finalize his ideas about humans and our place in the universe when he was a young man. He continued to explore new ideas and grow. He saw our knowledge of science, humanity, society, and ourselves as an ever-expanding field that had no lack of new horizons to explore.

And where there’s an unexplored horizon, there’s a kick-ass story waiting to be told.

Collector’s Guide: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB; DC Comics, 2017. Also available on Amazon. Or, get the original issues.

Big Box of Comics: Conan Chronicles 1 to 3

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Thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this year with one of my all-time favorite comic book runs: the first fifty issues of the Conan series by Dark Horse. These stories have been reprinted in so many formats and mini-collections that you might want to throw up your hands in despair rather than try to collect them all in chronological order. But before you give up hope, the Conan Chronicles comes to the rescue.

Despite the Marvel banner across the top, the first three volumes are high-quality reproductions of the Dark Horse series, complete with the original covers, variant covers, sketchbook pages from the artists, and the original forewords and introductions by authors and artists from the collections. There’s a fourth volume to the series, too. It continues into the next phase, when the title changed from Conan to Conan the Cimmerian after issue fifty.

These editions also include pages that reproduce the unique wrap-around covers from the various mini-collections. That’s a thoughtful bonus, even if the original cover size did get reduced to fit on one page. It would have been fun to also see the comic strips about the life of young Robert Howard that appeared on the original letters pages, but that’s a minor nitpick in a flawless and beautifully designed collection.

Also, these reprints do not include the recalled cover that showed full frontal female nudity. The only bare boobs you will see in this collection are Conan’s, since he rarely wears more than a loin cloth and a pair of moccasins while decapitating and dismembering his way through brutal, blood-soaked battles on every other page.

Conan is like the male flipside to the hyper-sexualization of women in mainstream superhero comics. He flexes and poses through the most insane adventures, nearly naked the entire time, and he’s got a totally ripped, massively muscular body it would take a regular guy 100 lifetimes of body-building, cosmetic surgery, and laser hair removal to come close to matching.

That’s part of the fun of the character. Everything about Conan is over the top and larger than life, from his physique, intellect, and attitude, to the landscapes and enemies he encounters. There’s nothing small or timid about this hero. He isn’t your average dork with tedious concerns trying to live a normal life. He starts off as an all-around bad-ass who wants to see the world and plunder her cities, and he charges headlong into trouble just because he likes a fight. Though he often succeeds or at least survives, his arrogant attitude constantly trips him up.

Throughout the stories in the first three volumes of the Conan Chronicles, he learns many lessons the hard way. By the end of those volumes, Conan has matured from a careless, hot-headed youth into the kind of man who can unite and lead a kingdom. Along the way, he kicks the most ass I’ve ever seen kicked in a single series—from demons and wizards to hordes of undead soldiers and anyone who ever messed with him in a tavern.

Collector’s Guide: Conan Chronicles; Marvel Epic Collection, 2019

Although these volumes reprint the Dark Horse series, they were published by Marvel, continuing the back-and-forth publishing deals the two companies have had with Conan licensing for many years. Note: Don’t confuse this series with The Chronicles of Conan, which was Dark Horse reprinting the 1970s series by Marvel!

indie spotlight: The Epics of Enkidu

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The Epics of Enkidu comic book features an autistic superhero in what could be the sequel to the oldest known story in human history: The Epics of Gilgamesh. The story takes place in a modern setting where Enkidu is brought back and does not remember who he is. His brain works so fast that everything around him moves too slowly. This makes him act socially odd and interact with the world differently, but it also helps him analyze everything. He sees the patterns of things that can happen before they happen, which is handy in a fight, but not when you try to communicate with him.

You can help this book get made!

The funding campaign starts today, May 15, at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-epics-of-enkidu#/

Here is a preview of artwork from the book! Written and colored by Ahmed Alameen. Penciled and inked by Felix Torres.

UPDATE: The funding campaign met and exceeded its goal in June 2020 thanks to 101 backers.

Meteor Mags: The Crystal Core

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UPDATE: This story now appears alongside four others in The Singing Spell and Other Tales, published October 2020.

METEOR MAGS: THE CRYSTAL CORE

The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episode 24.

© 2020 by Matthew Howard.

Description: After the events of Small Flowers, Mags and her pirate crew discover some of her telepathic octopuses are missing, things in the outer planets are completely messed up, and it’s all Mags’ fault.

Word Count: 7,900.

“The further the power of consciousness ventures out into experience, the more is the price it must pay for its knowledge.”

—Alan Watts; The Wisdom of Insecurity, 1951.

☠️

May 2030. From the Letters of Meteor Mags.

Dear Great-Gramma,

I don’t think I was cut out for motherhood. I’ve always loved my kittycats, and Patches might as well be my cub, but these octopuses are something else.

Last year, when I liberated them, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Patches and I wanted to help them get born, but then we had to feed them. Then we had these mystical group-mind experiences and a concert or two, and it all happened so fast.

Back then, we didn’t realize what they could do. Now, I feel like a mom who left her toddlers alone with lit candles and a bucket of petrol. What could go wrong?

I’m not exactly a supervisor, you know.

I didn’t realize they needed babysitting.

Anyway, we’re almost to the outer planets now. It’s time to see what the hell they’ve been up to, and I hope they didn’t—

Oh, my god.

I gotta go. I’ll tell you all about it later.

If I survive.

All my love,

Maggie

xoxox

☠️

By May 2030, hyperdimensional math was child’s play to Mags’ swirling swarm of telepathic octopuses. They were octopuses, not octopi, though Mags’ girls baked her an apple octo-pie topped with a golden crust shaped like tentacles. She ate it with gusto while explaining that octopuses had arms, not tentacles.

Her octos had greater concerns than labeling appendages. They wanted to build a perfect world, and they wanted it to be one they could be proud to show their mothers.

The octopuses had three. One was their biological mother who had been experimented on and grown to massive proportions, and who granted her offspring telepathic abilities through her mutated genetics. She died in 2029.[1]

Their second mother was the mostly human smuggler who facilitated their birth by providing water to their eggs so they could hatch, and whose mind had melded with their collective consciousness several times.[2]

The octopuses had also merged with Mags’ invincible calico cat Patches more than once. They held her on a matriarchal pedestal, too, and their thoughts took on a shape distinctly feline because of her: this world belongs to me and my cubs; either I hunt and eat, or I will die; and no, I will not get down from the table.

These might not have been the ideal thought-patterns to imprint on a cephalopodic group-mind.

Mags’ cavalier approach to telepathic communion with them wasn’t the only problem. The octopuses learned in November 2029 to communicate with her across empty space, and she later entertained their embraces in the dark waters of their asteroid cavern on Svoboda 9, establishing a mental and physical unity with them no other being ever had.[3]

Those experiences revealed all Mags’ memories to her unofficially adopted babies, including the nature of the mysterious object of power she called “the triglyph” and its location in her armory.[4]

Like children attracted to a shiny toy, they reached out for the triglyph when Mama wasn’t looking. They discovered a multi-dimensional object with a formative consciousness and power unlike anything they had ever encountered. Touching the triglyph’s primitive thoughts, the octopuses established a common language, introduced themselves, and reached an understanding.

Within seconds, they sent an invitation.

The triglyph vanished from Mags’ armory. It rotated itself through a space imperceptible to humans. Picoseconds later, it arrived on Svoboda 9 in the subterranean lake in the asteroid home the octos shared with Alonso, Plutonian, and the macaques.[5] None of the primates noticed the triglyph’s arrival, nor did they notice a minute later when it disappeared along with twenty octopuses.

The date was the eighth of November 2029, two days before Mags’ birthday party. The same day, the octopuses touched her mind from afar and removed all traces of the triglyph from her thoughts of the previous few days. The excision was not deep enough to remove all her memories of the object nor cause her any harm, but enough to wipe it from her current train of thought.

After all, they didn’t want to upset her.

☠️

May 2030. Svoboda 9.

Mags pounded her fist against the glass wall of the giant aquarium aboard the Hyades. “Where the fuck are my octos?!” At the pirate’s feet, Patches mewed and twitched her fuzzy ears.

Formerly a cargo ship Alonso served on during his days with the Port Authority, the Hyades had become a tour bus for the interspecies band known as Small Flowers, decorated with garish art and quasi-revolutionary slogans in spray paint on the outside, and housing the octopuses inside.[6]

“Take it easy, tía.” Alonso didn’t touch her, but his hands made cautionary gestures. “Fish don’t like it when you tap on the glass.”

She relented without stepping away, peering into the water, studying the octopuses’ movements, counting. “They’re not fish,” Mags said, “but point taken. Where are they?”

“Right here! Do you need a drink? We left fifty of them on Earth, but there’s still like a hundred fifty in there. Relax.”

“There’s more than fifty missing. Seventy, by my count.” Mags frowned. “Did they die?”

“I haven’t seen any corpses floating in the tank. Not in the lake, either, though the light’s not the best in there. Can you hear them?”

“No,” said Mags. “That’s what worries me. They’re hiding something.”

☠️

November 2029.

Twenty octopuses and the triglyph appeared in the sky over the Saturnian moon, Titan. Levitating in the frigid methane rain, a bubble ten meters wide with the triglyph at its center held the octos suspended in 523 cubic meters of water. The octos swam and breathed, and the triglyph’s power kept them warm.

Titan’s gravity almost equaled that of Earth’s moon, and a magnetic field preserved the atmosphere against the blast of solar wind. But the sky was filled with methane, which at Titan’s sub-zero temperature condensed from a gas into a liquid to fall from the sky in a slow-motion rainstorm, sluggish because of the lower gravity yet strong enough to carve rivers and lakes into the jagged, rocky landscape over millions of years.

Nitrogen was the second most common element in the alien air, and hydrogen made up less than one percent of the atmosphere. Life-sustaining oxygen was nowhere to be found.

The new arrivals made solving this problem their first order of business.

The triglyph held the raw power needed to change a world, but the cephalopods did the math. They joined arms and formed a living icosahedron, a shape with twenty sides, and every side an octopus. Individually, each mind would have been advanced, with genetically engineered neurons located not just in its brain but in each of its arms, like any normal octopus. But the octos never existed individually, not even in their eggs before they hatched. All were joined by telepathy, and when they studied a math problem, they did it together. The closest human equivalent was an array of supercomputers working on a problem in parallel.

The triglyph fed raw data into the organic, twenty-sided computer: distribution and density of elements in Titan’s crust and sky, gravitational force, temperatures, wind currents, topographic maps of the surface and the subsurface. The immensity of the task, the complexities of measuring everything everywhere on the moon all at once using its nine-dimensional perspective, forced the triglyph to exert its power to an extent—and with a precision—it never had before. The octopuses waited patiently, running numbers as they came in, untroubled by the extraordinary amount of time the sensing and measuring required.

It took 3.7 seconds. The math went even faster.

On the opposite side of Titan, one diameter away, a section of the crust exploded like a thousand atom bombs. In its place, a tiny star—a nuclear reaction—began its job of heating the planet. Seconds later, the triglyph yoked the primitive reactor’s energy and directed it toward fusion and fission of the available elements into more organically useful ones. When the elements were formed, the triglyph put them where it pleased or let them drift and disperse.

Titan had its first power plant.

This pleased the planet-sized moon. So did the realization that it had a new friend: Enceladus.

Also a Saturnian moon, Enceladus lived most of her icy life as a passing acquaintance to Titan, briefly swinging by to say hello when their orbital paths brought them near. But in an instant, Enceladus teleported so close to Titan that their gravities locked them together, with the smaller moon in orbit around Titan.

Gravity stripped the frozen, outer crust from Enceladus and drew her toward Titan in a steady stream of space dust that, when struck by sunlight, lit up almost as beautifully as Saturn’s rings. Below the crust was a vast, liquid-water ocean, full of the oxygen and hydrogen Titan needed for life. Titan asked, and Enceladus surrendered everything.

She was a generous friend, though gravity gave her little choice to be anything else.

With liquid water instead of methane, the triglyph filled lakes and rivers on Titan’s rugged surface. In the largest lake, it adjusted the salinity with sodium and chloride created by the reactor. The atmosphere stabilized and, with help from the reactor’s heat, the ambient temperature reached that of Earth’s. The lake became a new home for the octopuses. The triglyph teleported plants and animals from Earth’s oceans into the lake, and the octos spent their time arranging the décor until everything was just right.

At night, they spent hours floating on the lake, watching the brilliant stream of life-giving ice tumbling through the transformed sky from the dwindling Enceladus. They knew the moon was, in one sense, dying—giving up her existence to feed an emerging world. But her life was all around them. They swam in it every day. To the octopuses, the moon had only given up one shape to become unified with another.

Still, the passing of her ancient, durable form seemed a solemn event, one deserving a memorial.

The octopuses composed a song. On the night the last wisp of Enceladus dissolved into Titan, they sang. Lacking vocal cords, they formed a choir on the mental plane, a choir whose harmonies were mathematically orchestrated in twenty voices and echoed in the ever-changing color patterns on the octos’ skin.

When the song was over, the rebirth of Titan completed its second phase.

Silence followed, save for the ceaseless wind and the gentle lapping of waves on the lakeshore. A cloud overhead, rich with water, gave up its bounty. Raindrops splashed the lake and the cephalopods gathered there: arms intertwined, one being, one beauty, one mind.

Having reached their second milestone, six Earth months after they began, the rulers of Titan decided it would be nice to have a radio.

Something to listen to, besides the wind.

☠️

May 2030. Svoboda 9.

Mags answered her phone. “What?!”

“Hi, sweetie. Having one of those days?”

“Shondra! Oh my god, you won’t believe it. I just found out my babies ran off!”

“That’s crazy! The same thing happened with a bunch of my ships.”

“What?” Mags paced back and forth. “How does a ship run off?”

“I don’t know! We had half a dozen builds completed for a mining customer, all waiting to be picked up. Then—nothing. Gone. Not even a blip on radar or any alarms.”

“You didn’t equip them with K Drives, did you?”

“Fuck no! That tech is between you and me. If those ships got cloaked before they disappeared, it wasn’t me or my crews. But thanks for your total lack of trust.”

“I’m just eliminating possibilities. No one could sneak through your shipyards’ security from the outside. Unless it was me and Patches, and we definitely didn’t.”

“That’s almost a compliment. Do you remember the time we made out in the park in Hevelius? Sometimes I think about it when I—”

“Shondra, do you mind?! My nephew is standing right here.”

“Oooh. So, you didn’t steal my ships, and I didn’t steal your tech. Where does that leave us?”

“I don’t know, but shit doesn’t just disappear. How much do you want to bet that if we find your spaceships, we find my octos?”

“Your octos?”

“My babies! My little eight-armed freaks! Didn’t you see the vid of the Small Flowers concert on Ceres?”[7]

“You mean the octopuses in that huge tank behind you on stage? Those are your missing ‘babies’?”

“Like twenty of them.”

“I didn’t count. I was watching you sing naked.”

Mags purred. “That was awesome.”

“Will you sing like that for me sometime?”

“Shondra, if you find those missing spaceships, I will make your wildest dreams come true.”

Shondra laughed. “Promises, promises! I’ll see what I can do.”

“Love you,” said Mags.

“As if.” Shondra hung up.

0.8 seconds later, she forgot she ever called Mags.

It wasn’t Shondra’s fault. The octopuses on Titan had evaded discovery for half a year by wiping memories of astronomers and corporate workers who monitored the solar system. Many instruments on Earth and in the asteroid belt recorded the destruction of Enceladus, and many people observed those developments in progress.

But no human mind remembered them for more than a few seconds. Titan’s rulers saw to that. The octopuses’ telepathic powers were not strong enough to do this on their own, but with the triglyph amplifying them, their reach and strength became godlike. So did their aspirations.

But even gods have mothers they want to make proud with their work. Titan’s rulers sent Mags an invitation consisting of a single word.

“Titan,” said Mags. “The cheeky little bleeders are on Titan!”

Alonso asked, “How do you know?”

“The squidlings just told me. I need to go see what they are up to. Like, now.”

“I could go with you, tía. I got mad pilot skills, and I always got your back.”

“You do, and I appreciate it. But get me Plutonian. He and Patches and I will fix this. Stay here with the octos and keep an eye on them. They like you.”

“Word,” said Alonso. “Plutes was just tinkering with some circuits when you got here. Why don’t you have the octos call him?”

Mags asked the octos then held Patches in her arms and waited. She knew she could use Alonso’s help, but she craved time alone with her DJ.

Plutonian stumbled onto the scene, already three sheets to the wind. “Maggie!” He threw his arms around her.

Mags embraced him. After a moment, she held him at arm’s length. “How do you feel about taking on an interplanetary menace with me and Patches?” She looked him over, scowling and smiling at his disarray. “I got rum.”

“Who could resist,” he said. “Where are we going?”

“Titan,” said Mags. “Come aboard and strap in.”

“You said there’s rum?”

“Oh, you bet. And you’re in charge of the radio.”

☠️

A white dwarf is all that remains of a star larger than the sun, a star where the core’s nuclear fusion of elements into heavier elements continues unabated until the first day it creates iron. Iron kills the original star by absorbing its fusion energy. Without that power, the star cannot overcome its own gravity. Within seconds of the formation of iron, the star collapses under its own weight. The collapse triggers an explosion—a supernova—and it leaves behind a white dwarf.

The star core continues fusing until iron becomes carbon. In the extreme gravitational pressure, the carbon crystallizes. It becomes a diamond the size of Earth. The process takes billions of years.

Teleporting one took the rulers of Titan almost an entire minute.

From dozens of lightyears away, a diamond star core appeared in the Kuiper belt, the vast realm of debris orbiting the sun beyond the outer planets. The Kuiper belt was home to many dwarf planets, some as large as Pluto. As dirty and disheveled as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but larger and colder, the Kuiper belt held a sea of undiscovered rocks from the earliest days of the solar system’s formation—a library from the beginning of solar time, the birthplace of comets, and a treasure trove of clues to the origins of Earth and life itself.

Within seconds, the Kuiper Belt began to die.

The diamond star core would have needed at least one orbital period to pass through and absorb the entire Kuiper Belt. But within days, it cleared vast swaths of space rock, sweeping them all into its gravity. Previously clouded expanses of space at the edge of the solar system became clear as a bell. The immense gravity pulled in anything near it as the crystal orbited the sun.

In their descent to the core, the rocky residents of the Kuiper Belt collided, heated, and formed a red-hot layer of nuclear fire around the diamond. The discarded leftovers of the solar system burned like atomic pyres. The core’s gravity seduced, subdued, and crushed them. Twin beams of energy shot from the diamond’s north and south poles.

Clearing an orbit takes most planets millions of years and a fair amount of random chance. But the diamond core was no planet. It was a dead star, and it could not share with any other body the cold, vast space between Neptune and the Oort cloud. Soon, all that remained of millions of kilometers of the Kuiper belt was a spherical and ever-diminishing shell of nuclear fire around the diamond.

The octopuses had created the first component of their crystal radio.

The crystal radio is a basic receiver that needs no external power, instead deriving its power from the radio waves it receives. The crystal is a demodulator, making sense of radio-wave transmissions and translating them into soundwaves so people can listen.

The crystal accomplishes this because it changes shape as radio waves bombard it. As it expands and contracts with each passing wave, the crystal produces a small amount of voltage and a modified signal that can be converted into sound in a simple circuit.

Crystal radios are weak. They need a power amplifier or high-impedance headphones to really make some noise—unless they’re the size of a star core.

The rulers of Titan built other components. For an antenna, they teleported empty spaceships from the Martian shipyards and fused them end-to-end. For a wire coil, they pulled copper from the asteroid belt and wound it around a cylindrical asteroid.

For a tuner, they needed a variable capacitor made of two plates. They chose a pair of iron-heavy asteroids. The triglyph teleported the rocks into position. Those rocks would tune the circuit to specific radio-wave frequencies.

Next, the octos focused on converting their star core into graphite. Diamond was not conductive enough to serve as the crystal in their radio. But with the application of enough energy, it could become graphite: a conductive element that would complete the circuit.

The octopuses had the triglyph working on the problem when Mags and Patches showed up.

☠️

Aboard the Bêlit, Mags raised her eyes from her memoir.

Her personal diaries—the ones written on paper—she burned every year on her birthday. But she kept a second, digital diary in the form of letters to her great-gramma, the pirate whose ring she wore every day of her life since taking it from her dying mother’s hand in 1938.

Mags wrote all the letters in a flowery script using a stylus on her tablet. Only Celina and Patches knew Mags wrote those letters, though she had considered telling Plutonian. She kept the letters secret not from shame but to avoid the annoyance of answering questions about why she wrote letters to a dead woman who would never read them.

Mags was certain Great-Gramma read every word of them. Mags believed Great-Gramma knew every moment of her life. While she never felt Great-Gramma needed to be informed of events, writing the letters comforted Mags with the belief that she talked to someone who understood power, piracy, and the quest to change the course of human history.

But not even Mags understood what transpired in the viewport on the bridge of the Bêlit. She dropped her tablet and stylus. “What the fuck are they doing out there?”

Patches leapt onto the console and mewed. She pawed the window.

“Sheathe the claws, kitty!”

Patches retracted her daggers. She had done quite a number on Mags’ old ship, the Queen Anne, and the smuggler was forever reminding her not to scratch the living hell out of the Bêlit.

“Look at that,” said Plutonian. “Titan’s atmosphere isn’t orange anymore. And over there? What’s that?”

“Two asteroids joined by a—what the fuck? A shaft?”

Plutonian considered for a moment. “You know what that looks like.”

“No. What is it?” Mags ignored the console’s displays and pressed her face to the window, cupping her hands around her eyes to block reflections of ambient light.

“A primitive capacitor.”

“Boil my bollocks in oil,” said Mags. “What about that thing? Is it a metal rod? It’s gotta be a kilometer long.”

“That shape,” said Plutonian. “It’s like an antenna.”

Mags pounded the meat of her fist against the window. “I bet dollars to dimes that’s Shondra’s missing ships! All melted down!”

“If it’s a radio circuit, they’re missing a—” Plutonian adjusted a dial. “Wait. We’re picking up a massive object in the Kuiper Belt. It’s graphite. A giant graphite crystal. Mags, your octos built a radio!”

“Fuck me sideways.” Her tail swished. “Who let them out of their cage?”

Plutonian drew his hand down his face and rubbed his beard. “We’re picking up something weird, but I’ve seen it before. It’s the same radiation I discovered the first time I found the triglyph.”

“It’s out here, too?”

“It must be. Where else would your octos get the raw power to do all this?”

“Those little bastards,” said Mags. “It’s a great idea, but they are fucking up the whole system by introducing that thing here! It’s eating up the Kuiper Belt now. What about when its gravity starts throwing planets out of orbit? That could trash Saturn and Jupiter!”

Plutonian sparked a joint. “Ah, it’s not like anyone would miss Jupiter.”

I’d fucking miss it! All the planets it’s protecting from asteroid collisions would miss it! What is wrong with you?” Mags did not expect an answer, but she did expect him to pass the joint. “Plutes, this solar system belongs to me. Take us down to Titan. I need a word with my babies.”

He complied and steered the ship.

Before the Bêlit landed on Titan, Mags fell to the floor.

Plutonian’s hands and Patches’ furry face failed to rouse her. She was caught in a conversation with the octopuses.

They spoke in her mind. <Mother.>

Darlings. Do you mind telling me what the fuck you’re doing?

<Music. Soon all the solar system will be music.>

Soon, the system will be a bloody useless disaster if you don’t cut it out right now! You’re introducing objects whose gravity will fuck up so many orbits. You need to stop!

<Not disaster, Mother. Song. A symphony. For you.>

Me?! I didn’t request the end of the goddamn system! You could just play some Exploited albums and I’d be fine!

<So much happy here. Join us. Be one with us and hear the song.>

No! Bad octos! Put that star core way farther out in the Oort cloud! You are buggering things on a massive scale! Mags performed a seat-of-the-pants calculation and told them how far out to place the core.

<Done. Now come. Be one.>

Mags slapped her own face. “Get a grip, you old sod!”

Plutonian’s hands were on her. One on her shoulder held her steady. One cupped the side of her face. “Are you okay?”

“No!” Mags pushed him away, rolled onto one knee, then rose to her full height. “Get off me! I’m fine!”

“Sorry, Maggie. I didn’t mean to—” His expression changed from attrition to annoyance. “Try to save you?”

Mags brushed herself off. Her tail snapped like a whip, swatting some unseen menace with even more vigor than she had slapped her own face. “Plutes. Imma say this right now, in case we don’t make it out alive.” She took his hand in hers. “Thank you for caring.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Oh, I’m mad as hell. But not at you.” She pulled him closer.

Patches turned her back on their kissing and groomed her fur.

Moments later, Titan’s surface filled the viewport.

☠️

The Bêlit landed on Titan, and a section on the side of the ship lowered like a ramp. Patches dashed out the door and became the first mammal to set foot on the rocky moon. She wasted no time marking her new territory with claws, scent, and urine. She rubbed her face on the jagged corner of a boulder then froze in place.

Patches sniffed the air with her mouth slightly open, welcoming the unfamiliar olfactory landscape with the Jacobson’s Organ in the roof of her mouth. Her ears twitched every which way then folded back like the wings of a fighter plane. Patches sprinted across the recently formed beach to another rock and repeated the process.

Mags held Plutonian’s hand at the bottom of the ramp. “I told you she’d be first!”

“She’s certainly proud of herself.” He followed the cat’s erratic movements for a moment but could not keep his eyes away from Saturn. “Mags, this is unreal. Even if we weren’t the first humans on Titan, we’d be the first to see Saturn through its atmosphere.”

The distance from Titan to Saturn is more than twice that of the Earth to the Moon. But even that far away, the ringed planet hung low in the sky, a gas giant floating above the horizon. The major divisions in its rings were visible, and many of its other moons.

Mags purred and shook a lock of hair away from her glasses. “I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended that you still think of me as human.” She squeezed his hand. “But it’s an amazing view. I’m glad you’re here to share it.”

Patches interrupted their moment with a caterwaul signaling she had seen the octopuses floating in their lake below the hovering triglyph.

Mags and Plutonian moved to join her, but they were struck down by the force of an amplified, telepathic touch. The two adventurers cried out in pain, stumbled, and fell to the barren ground.

☠️

My name’s Dr. Plutonian. I’m not really a doctor of anything, but I know enough to know this whole scene is fucked. A second ago, I was standing on a beach next to Mags.

Damn, she looked good today. It wasn’t just her new outfit or the way her hair exposes her neck every time she puts it up in a headband and curls. I think she changed her perfume, too.

Driving me crazy is what she’s doing. I would be all about getting naked with her again. And a cat brush. She’d love to be brushed. And maybe one of those toys you stuff full of catnip. We could—

Wait a second. This isn’t my diary. Where am I?

Focus!

Why is it so hard to think right now? This is worse than being drunk.

I need to back-announce some music. Thanks for tuning in. That was Crocodiles with Telepathic Lover. Before that, the Wipers with Telepathic Love. Next up, Octopus Ride from—

Fuck me. I’m not on the air, announcing songs. That was a memory.

Now I can’t remember it.

I wrote a new poem. It starts off like this. The solar system’s dying. So am I.

Part of me wishes I’d never found the triglyph in the first place. But that part’s disappearing. The triglyph is fine. The octos are fine.

Titan is me. I am this moon. I am locked in an orbit where one side of me always faces Saturn, and I’ve only ever dreamed of breaking free from my prison and supporting life.

My name’s—

No, it isn’t. Plutonian’s not even my real name. I haven’t gone by my birth name in years, not since I went AWOL from the Army. That person is dead, and I don’t miss him.

But I do wish I could see my little Siamese kitty one more time. Just once.

Mags tells me that feeling never goes away. You just learn to live with it.

But that part’s going away, too. I reach out for my cat. He’s gone like he was never there in the first place. I see him. Then I don’t.

I hate this. I hate everything about this.

When I was twelve, I killed my father with his own shotgun. When I was thirty, I saw my sister for the last time. When I was twenty-six, I killed a boy in the war in Afghanistan.[8] When I was seven—

No, that’s not how it happened! It’s all out of order. I had this picture of my life, and now it’s being torn apart, cut and pasted into something I don’t even recognize.

Mags? Can you hear me?

Maggie?

Are you there?

☠️

My name is Magdalena. It was my great-gramma’s name, too. Like her, I have a hundred aliases, and when you’re in the business of “liberating” cargo, it’s nice to have aliases. Margaritka. Marjorie. Madelaine. You should see my collection of passports.

Friends call me Mags. Plutes calls me Maggie. We’re not friends anymore.

I mean, we are. But that’s not what he means when he calls me that.

My name’s Mags, and I’m a goddess. My heart is molten iron, my body is a planet-sized moon, and my soul is an atmosphere. I spent millions of years covered in liquid methane, but now oxygen and nitrogen fill my soul, and water covers my skin. New life grows inside me, on me, in my lakes. I see so many stars from here. All of them.

My name is Titan.

No, Titan’s a moon.

My name is Moons. M-O-O–N, that spells—christ on a fucking—[9]

My name is Mags, and this is really starting to piss me off. I can’t find my body, and I’ve grown rather fond of it in the past century. It might be a fucked-up mutant cat hybrid of a body, but it’s the one I was born with, and it’s kicked a lot of arse over the years. Since I only have ninety-four more years of murder penciled in on my bloody calendar, I want it back! Now! Hello? Hello?!

Fuck.

I think Plutes is dying.

So am I. Broken down at the cellular level. Deconstructed, like my mind.

My name is Margareta—

Sink and burn me.

You know who’s doing this? My babies. My little cephalopodic sweethearts. My absolutely adorable mollusks whose eight-armed arses I will kick into next week if they don’t cut it out! Do you hear me, you slimy little fucks?! Get out of my mind!

Oh, now they act all sad.

I’m pretty sure my body is lying dead on Titan, and my mind is being merged with the planetary consciousness of Titan, and I didn’t even realize these big chunks of rock in space had thoughts and feelings. The octos are trying to mix me and Patches and Plutes into their little science project to become one with Titan, and it’s making me madder than a cut snake.

Every time I try to fight, I get pulled right back.

My name is Mags, and I’m a planet. I’m an octopus. I’m a nine-dimensional object tapping into unimaginable power. My mothers are here, and they are unhappy about the situation. But it will all be over soon.

Patches? Can you hear me?

It’s me! My name is—

Patches?

Can you hear me?

☠️

Since her birth in 2026, life had dealt Patches many offenses. She took every one of them personally: people shooting at her, people getting her gender wrong, people telling her to get down from the table, people telling her to stop clawing the furniture.

The sight of the bottom of her dish.

She took those evils in stride and every so often forgave without forgetting. But seeing Mags’ and Plutonian’s bodies lying inert brought her to a new level of displeasure. Keeping her claws sheathed, Patches batted Mags’ face with one paw.

No response.

She stood on Plutonian’s chest and kneaded it with her paws, but his chest did not rise and fall. She pressed her nose to his and felt no breath.

Unacceptable.

<Go to sleep, little kitty.> The voice appeared in her head: musical, soothing, seductive. At the same time, an unfamiliar force tugged at her body.

Patches would have been hard-pressed to describe the feeling, but she had never mated with a male cat. If she had, she would have related the experience to being held down and torn apart from the inside.

Whatever it was, she didn’t like it, and it didn’t take a genius to discern the source.

The cause.

The octopuses floating on the lake.

Patches didn’t know how long Mags and Plutonian could go without breathing before irreversible brain death set in, but she wasn’t interested in finding out. Ignoring the voice and its attempts to alter her impervious body and rip her mind to shreds, she ran to the lakeshore and leapt in.

The closest octopus squirted a cloud of murky ink and propelled itself away from her. The others scattered. Patches pursued her initial target, but the action was a feint. As soon as she was in reach of another octo, she clamped her indestructible teeth on its arm.

The octopus tried to wrap her in seven other sucker-covered arms and pull her away, but it only succeeded in giving her more to destroy.

Patches’ claws caught the cephalopod and pulled it close. Clasping the head with her forepaws, she shredded the bulbous brain with her hind claws, kicking like a rabbit. Gooey bits of mollusk clouded the water and dispersed from the force of her fury.

The remaining nineteen octos focused their mental energy on her, and the triglyph followed.

To the death, then. Death was something any animal could understand. Even the most primitive microbe wanted to live. Patches latched onto another octopus.

The others felt it die. They shuddered. The cephalopods had lived through the demise of their biological mother, but they had never known their siblings to pass away. <Stop>, they told Patches. <Do not do this.>

If the octopuses had chosen another cat for their experiment, they might have succeeded. But they had picked a fight with the wrong kitten. The triglyph had helped create her, but it could not overpower her. Its power was hers, and its attempt to deconstruct her met with equal force drawn from the same cosmic source.

<Stop>, said the octos.

Patches seized a third octopus in her teeth and savored its death throes. Its blood, colored blue by hemocyanin, clouded the water. The lyric to NY State of Mind came to Patches. Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap. She recited it to the octos probing her mind. Where fake niggas don’t make it back.[10]

Seventeen octopuses conferred. <What do you want?>

Let my friends go, or I will end you.

<We can teleport you into the heart of the sun.>

Do it. You can’t get rid of me forever. I will kill you. Now. Later. Makes no difference. I will fuck you up!

Two seconds later, Mags sat up from her prone position and gasped for breath. So did the man beside her. “Plutes!” She helped him to his feet.

A fuzzy calico face swam against the tidal current toward the shore.

Mags ran into the water. Before the rocky subsurface fell away from her feet, she scooped up Patches in her arms, and they rubbed their faces together.

Mags cuddled Patches all the way back to shore. “Good girl!” Mags stretched out the r in girl like an extended purr and held Patches against her chest. “Good kitty.”

Patches licked Mags’ hair with the impervious rasps on her tongue. The curls would take months to grow back, but Mags didn’t mind. She supported Patches with one arm and drew a .50 caliber pistol from the holster at her waist.

Mags fired into the waves and killed three more octopuses before the rest of them descended below the water to hide. “Fucking ingrates! Useless as a wet roll of dunny scratch in a hurricane!” She emptied the clip. “I tried to help you!”

Plutonian stepped up to the smuggler and her cat and wrapped his arms around them. A faint remainder of Mags’ perfume underscored the scent of lake water on the soaking wet felines and the smell of the alien atmosphere. Patches’ breath mingled with octopus blood. Plutonian closed his eyes, and both his companions purred against him, a smoky, soothing vibrato. “What just happened? Did I hear Nas?”

Mags nuzzled her cheek against his. The tip of her nose was cold and wet. “That was Patches. You’re safe now.”

☠️

The triglyph fell from its place above the lakeshore. It rested in a crater in the sand, pulsating until it lost all semblance of light and lay like a corpse on Titan’s gritty, grainy beach.

On the way back to the Bêlit, Mags picked it up.

In her hands, it crumbled into dust.

She watched it fade away, then wiped her hands on her skirt, leaving dirty smears. “That thing’s bloody useless.” She flung a strand of hair away from her glasses. “Give me a minute.”

<Mother.>

Babies. You can’t go trying to kill me.

<Not kill. Transcend. Now you have killed some of us.>

Do you not know about self-defense? Jesus, I’m bloody sorry, but don’t test me!

<Selves are not gone. Selves are here with us.>

Good.

<Good.>

You gonna cut this shit out, then? Maybe ask me next time before you run off?

<We will ask, Mother.>

Mags purred. I’d appreciate that. Do you want to stay here? Can you chill without fucking up the rest of the solar system?

<Yes. Happiness here. Glorious world.>

You still got tunes?

<Many tunes.>

You got food?

<Our garden grows.>

You still love me?

<All is one, and we are one with you.>

Love you too, you little fuckers. Call me sometime. Mags stirred from her reverie and rubbed her face. “The octos are fine for now. Let’s go.”

After the Bêlit left the gravitational pull of Titan, Plutonian took over the radio. “Hey, I got something.” He dialed in the frequency. “This is the signal from the space radio. Listen.”

Mags and Patches perked up their ears. Through the 1,000-watt speakers on the Bêlit’s bridge, a transmission played from the giant crystal radio.

“That’s the sound of Andromeda.” Plutonian adjusted the controls. “This one is coming from beyond the range of Hubble. It sounds almost intelligent.”

“Patterns,” said Mags. “Hundreds of millions of years old. That’s beautiful.”

“Aye,” said Plutonian. “Amazing jam.” He pressed a button labeled record.

Mags tapped her foot to the beat. “Now we got a giant space radio. What’s next?”

“I don’t know,” said Plutonian. “How many octopuses do you have left?”

“Fourteen on Titan. Fifty on Earth. About a hundred on Svoboda. Why?”

Plutonian sat forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “What about Mars?”

“I bet I could take over Mars if I put my babies to work. But after some of them running off like this? Bugger me sideways. They seem to have their own agenda.”

From the corner of her bunk, Patches typed messages to her friend, Mags’ unofficially adopted nephew Tarzi, on her tablet.

The young man replied. How did it go? Did you show those octos what’s up?

Patches flicked her ears and typed with one claw. Just a nigga. Walkin’ with my finga on the trigga.[11]

Word. Love you.

Patches purred. She curled up in the shape of a crescent moon and settled into a nap.

Plutonian said, “It seems kinda fucked up to work these octos into a plan for Mars.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Mags ashed her cigarette in her armchair ashtray and spent too much time shaping the cherry into a perfect cone. “It’s tyranny. It’s reckless. And it’s dodgy as fuck.”

“You do realize,” said Plutonian, “that you can’t base a revolution on mind control.”

Mags laughed. “Whatever. Do you want to live in this shithole solar system the way things are, or do you want to change things for the better?”

“You mean what you think is better.” Plutonian sat back in his chair. “You aren’t asking for anyone’s consent.”

“No,” she said. “I’m not.”

☠️

From the Letters of Meteor Mags.

As far as Plutes and I can tell, corroborated with what I glimpsed in the octos’ thoughts, the triglyph pulled power from areas of physical space we can’t perceive. It took nine physical dimensions to describe the shape of that object. In our four-dimensional spacetime, it looked something like a kaleidoscope, constantly shifting, appearing to be made of every possible polygon changing into every other with each passing second.

Its dimensions weren’t mathematical abstractions. If you could physically navigate those dimensions, certain quartets of them would appear to be different universes. They weren’t really different. Just aspects of this reality you or I can’t access.

But the triglyph could. From those nine dimensions taken four at a time, that’s 126 possible ways the triglyph could occupy a four-dimensional spacetime.

It’s a simple combination problem.

So the triglyph pulled all this power out of other universes that are really ours, and it had so many different paths though spacetime to get from one point to another that it achieved what’s impossible in our four-dimensional perception: teleportation.

And there our troubles began. I’m just glad it’s gone now.

☠️

Near the event horizons of the black holes at the core of the Andromeda galaxy, something new popped into orbit. The Milky Way’s closest neighbor hardly noticed. The arrival was a bundle of energy smaller than a breadbox and about as threatening.

Andromeda’s new resident gathered space dust around itself and compressed the particles into a sphere, just enough to feel like a planet. It missed that feeling.

The triglyph’s once-primitive thought patterns had evolved since meeting the octopuses. It missed them, too. It missed all its old friends: the man who designed it, the DJ who found it, the smuggler who gave it a place to live.

No matter. That was the old life. Those events were as far away as the nearest galaxy. The memories swiftly paled in the glorious blaze from the Andromedan core.

Super-massive black holes clustered there, not close enough to merge with each other, but with the collective power to swirl a trillion star-systems around them, like water down a drain, falling to the center.

The triglyph moved closer. It surfed the boundaries of the event horizons around the cluster. From every direction, matter falling into the inescapable gravity well ignited and bloomed into sprays of radiation beyond light’s visible frequencies.

At the magnetic north and south poles of the sea of stellar annihilation, the violence emitted the most powerful bursts of all: x-rays and gamma rays. They shot from the center of the galaxy perpendicular to all the stars revolving around them.

Gravity was the master there. At close range, it consumed everything—not just matter, but space and time. Existence. Meaning. Light.

Everything.

The central hub of destruction also brought life into being. Its giant whirlpool full of colliding space dust formed suns, planets, moons, and all the elements necessary to begin life on those rocks.

At the edge of chaos, the triglyph hovered. The spiral galaxy’s outer arms would have been more sedentary places to establish a new home. But the triglyph was finished with limitations and boundaries. It had enough of them in the Milky Way.

Andromeda was a blank slate, just like the triglyph had been 10,000 years before. But all Andromeda’s history, all its information, everything the galaxy ever knew, fell into the black holes at the center. Every possible future sank into the singularities. Nothing could be learned from anything past the event horizon.

The triglyph swam in the gravitational whirlpool and considered these things for several minutes. It had a new body. The old one, it gave up on Titan. It was better to let Mags believe she had won than to prolong a battle that would only tear apart her solar system.

Regardless of what Mags thought, the triglyph never meant her any harm. It only lacked an appropriate scale of what harm might be.

It knew it owed a debt of gratitude to the beings who called it into existence. When its creator died, it might have been abandoned to decay forever. If not for Mags, Patches, and Tarzi, the machine that called the triglyph into life would never have been activated.[12]

But Andromeda? The triglyph had no friends there. No past. No affections.

It began by pushing together several black holes. Fascinated by the results, it teleported the nearby galaxy M32 to add to the fun.

The cosmic event took two and a half million years to reach Earth, traveling at the speed of light in a vacuum. But Earth had plenty of other things to worry about in those years.

Four billion years later, the Milky Way was destroyed in a collision with Andromeda and became something else. The event ignited more black holes. Gamma-ray bursts signaled the death of information and history inside gravity’s grasp.

What a sight.

What a song.

The triglyph tapped on the galactic cores like a conductor tapping his wand on the edge of a music stand.

A new galaxy sprang to attention.

THE END


[1] See Red Metal at Dawn and Daughter of Lightning.

[2] Most notably in Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, Voyage of the Calico Tigress, and Small Flowers.

[3] In Voyage of the Calico Tigress.

[4] The triglyph’s ancient origin appears in Patches the Immortal. It re-appeared in Daughter of Lightning, and Mags decided to store it in her armory in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. Mags discovered it missing in Small Flowers.

[5] Alonso has lived with the octos and the space monkeys from The Lost Crew of the Volya IX since Voyage of the Calico Tigress. Plutonian moved in with them during Hunted to Extinction.

[6] See Rings of Ceres and Small Flowers.

[7] See Small Flowers.

[8] He recounted this event to Mags in detail in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.

[9] Mags is getting her memories confused with a detail from Stephen King’s The Stand.

[10] Jones, Nasir, et. al. (1994). NY State of Mind. On Illmatic. New York: Kobalt Music Publishing, Ltd.

[11] Jones, Nasir, et. al. (1994). NY State of Mind. On Illmatic. New York: Kobalt Music Publishing, Ltd.

[12] As shown in Patches the Immortal.

Meteor Mags: Small Flowers – now in print

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The rock-and-roll space adventures continue!

In the months after Hunted to Extinction, Alonso’s interspecies band gets a name and performs its first concert during the reconstruction of Ceres, with Meteor Mags on the mic to fuel the fires of revolution.

Kaufman and Anton move into their new home in an old friend’s strip club, Dr. Plutonian gets more than his mind blown, and Mags disregards safety regulations to plug in her free-energy system for the first time.

Plus, Dekarna kills an asteroid full of miners to make a nest for her eggs, but Mags and the space octopuses have a different plan for the last surviving reptile from the Battle of Vesta—one that will give the space lizard everything she ever dreamed of, at a price she never imagined.

May not be suitable for children or carbon-based life.

Now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

indie box: Sin City

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It’s no secret that one of my favorite pieces of fiction is Frank Miller’s Sin City series. I discovered it at the Las Vegas public library about eighteen years ago when I checked out the A Dame to Kill For TPB. It was the most awesome thing I’d ever read, with over-the-top brutality and an atmosphere that was darker than the blackest noir. It was so intense about being intense that it was funny and morbidly serious at the same time, and the first thing I did after reading it was read it again. Then I tracked down the other stories! One had dinosaurs.

For a while I had the complete series in an awesome collected edition, but those books were smaller than the full-sized TPBs, and there’s just something about this series that suits being as big as possible. The original TPB collections also appear to include more pages than were printed in the original serialized formats, such as extra splash pages for multiple perspectives of Dwight holding a dude’s head underwater in a toilet in The Big Fat Kill. The one missing ingredient in the earliest TPBs is color, the use of just one primary color as an accent to individual stories, such as the yellow highlights in the TPB for That Yellow Bastard. Still, I’m okay without the color if I get a bigger page size!

The black and white art is insanely melodramatic, as shown in a couple pages of Marv walking in the rain from the first Sin City TPB, later titled The Hard Goodbye. The text is like a hard-boiled detective novel with the volume turned up to eleven. I not only love this scene, I love that it goes on for ten whole pages — eleven in the TPB!

While writing last week’s post about Next Men, I looked into some other John Byrne works I hadn’t seen yet, including his stint on The Sensational She-Hulk. That run is best known for relentlessly breaking the fourth wall and having the characters be aware they were in a comic book. Byrne based the fiftieth issue on a gag that he had been killed, and the cast needed to find a new writer and artist. So, he showed how some of his friends in the industry would do a She-Hulk story. That’s how we got a couple pages of a Sin City She-Hulk.

This post was made possible by this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to buy comics. Recent store credit made it possible to reconnect with the Sin City TPBs that first hooked me on the series. Thank you!

big box of comics: New 52 Batman

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DC’s New 52 is now old news, and it came and went without my paying any attention to it. But the one thing I missed that I really wanted see was Greg Capullo drawing Batman, beginning with Bat’s first New 52 adventure The Court of Owls. So, last year, with some of the store credit I earned thanks to this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to find books, I got the first paperback collection.

It’s a wild ride, and I’ve since read a digital version of the rest of the Snyder/Capullo run just to see what happened next. I plan to get the second TPB, but after that one, the series began to lose my interest. The second TPB features an amazing Mr. Freeze story, and if you’re expecting the cartoon silliness of Arnold Freezinator from the movies, you won’t find any of that. Snyder writes Freeze as a mentally and emotionally disturbed villain, playing up the sympathetic tragedy and ultimate self-delusion that drive his maniacal actions.

After that, the series goes into a Joker story that starts off well and is exquisitely drawn but eventually collapses under its own weight. It asks us to believe that everything that happens is all a part of a wildly complicated “evil genius” plot, kind of like the Saw movies or virtually any of the “serial killer” thriller films, except there’s no way anyone could plan for all the eventualities, and much of it is downright implausible. Then the series goes into a lengthy plot involving Commissioner Gordon becoming Batman, and a whole lot of “Batman’s early days”. I didn’t care for either development.

The first two story arcs for Court of Owls feature an inventive mix of crime, horror, and superheroics, and it’s a perfect blend of genres for a “world’s greatest detective” who dresses like a frickin’ bat. I can’t even describe how glorious it is to see Capullo drawing Batman in action, and the first arc does an inventive thing with page layouts when Batman is caught in a maze and hallucinating his ass off. I won’t spoil it for new readers, but I will say that I got just as turned around as Bats did at that point in the story, and I thought that was brilliant.

While Court of Owls and its follow-up arc are dramatic and gripping, it soon becomes apparent that they lack any consequence. For example, Bats is subjected to unimaginable beatings and torture, but then a few pages later, he’s totally fine. No bruises on his face. No long-term disability from being stabbed almost to death and drowned. He just sort of gets back to business. I was worried he was going to die, but then he’s okay because the plot demands it?

Plus, the Owls succeed in killing off many prominent local politicians and governmental figures, but all this does is give the rest of the Bat-family an excuse to jump into the story to protect whoever is still alive. If you killed most of the public officials in a city, there would be ramifications, but Court of Owls never deals with them. I didn’t want a series exploring the politics of Gotham—although I loved Brian K. Vaughn’s politically themed Ex Machina—but I did want some sense that what happened in the story mattered. Instead, it’s glossed over as quickly as Batman’s mortal wounds.

There are a few other details like this. The Owls figure out where the Batcave is, but after Bats defeats the cave invaders, that knowledge is never used again. That’s powerful information! They wouldn’t—I don’t know—send an email to Lex Luthor with the GPS coordinates? Or spam every person on the planet? Or announce it on Twitter? Are they serious about Bat-termination or not?!

Also, in the first issue, Bats uses an amazing facial recognition technology that is never mentioned again. It only serves as a plot device to give us information dumps about characters—apparently to get new readers on board with the cast by disguising the info dumps as Bat-science. It’s a cool trick, but it’s a tech without any lasting consequences.

Despite those flaws, Snyder gave Capullo some amazing, moody material to work with visually, and the first couple of Snyder/Capullo TPB volumes deserve a place in a “best of Batman” collection. And, if you don’t mind implausible “serial killer movie” plotting, the third volume with the Joker is also a visual feast.

indie box: Next Men TPB

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Once upon a time, I had the complete Next Men series, except for the Hellboy issue. Though I read the series three or four times, I’ve missed having it around ever since I sold it. This month, thanks to this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to find books, I earned enough store credit to get all six of the 1993 trade paperback collections. Reading the series again reminds how much the series blew my mind the first time through, and as a bonus, it includes the Hellboy issue with pages drawn by Mike Mignola.

Hellboy’s appearance in issue #17 makes it the most expensive one to collect. It’s easy to collect all the other original, single issues for less than $3 each, but #17 will cost as much or more than all the other thirty issues combined. That’s not a problem with the collected paperback.

Hellboy might be part demon, but he is a far cry from the absolute evil of the series’ main villain. Sathanas is the remnants of a mutated energy vampire who kills people by draining their lifeforce, and since so much of him got blown up, he survives in a mechanical suit. Despite his silly name, he’s among my favorite John Byrne villains.

Despite the fun of the paperbacks, they have three disappointments, possibly because they were made more than a quarter-century ago before TPBs became so popular. These days, we expect the TPB to include all the original covers and, if any, all the variant covers. But the Next Men covers get treated terribly, reduced to about 1/6 of the page size and combined in a “gallery”. It’s an odd design choice, considering that there’s a useless page between each “issue” that just splits the words “Next Men” across its front and back. That would be a lovely place for a cover!

Second, the story is so intertwined with the short graphic novel 2112 that the original Next Men series isn’t complete without it. This oversight is forgivable, since the events of 2112 get summarized by one of the characters.

What’s unforgivable is the omission of the entire series of “back-up” stories, M4. These were short episodes with characters who, at first, seemed only tangentially related to the main series. But the stories intersected eventually, and the M4 characters were essential to the finale and resolution. Leaving out the M4 pages makes these characters appear to pop out of nowhere in the main storyline, which makes for utterly confusing plot developments for unfamiliar readers. Plus, M4 had its own covers, featured on the back of the single issues where it ran, and the TPBs have none of them.

For the completists: When IDW reprinted the series in color in 2009, they included M4 but not 2112. IDW’s 2011 reprint series (“Classic Next Men”, in three TPBs) includes both M4 and 2112, and it’s also in full color. I’ve only ever seen it in stock on Amazon for around $40 per volume in paperback, but you can get them for $10.99 each for Kindle and Comixology, and as a set with the sequel for a total of $43.

Even with these omissions, I loved re-reading this imaginative and intricately plotted series that features some of Byrne’s most humanized and fully realized characters. Consider what he does with three wordless pages to show Jasmine’s emotional state as she flees from an attack in underground tunnels. Her old, perfect life was taken from her, and she’s not adjusting well to reality, where trauma awaits her at every turn. Without a single line of expositional captions or thought balloons, Byrne portrays her fragile condition in these pages.

arrest the president

Mars Will Send No More enters its eighth year this month, and this blog’s focus has always been on comic books, art, and music. So, let’s have some music. And let’s have it loud.

avengers 267: time and time again

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One of my favorite Avengers stories features the time-traveling psychopath known as Kang The Conqueror. He sports a ridiculous outfit that only John Buscema and Tom Palmer could make cool.

What kind of evil plan can a person hatch in striped purple thigh-high boots? Stripping to pay his way through college? But don’t judge Kang by his fashion sense, because he rocks hard in this minor masterpiece.

I was 13 when this issue appeared on the comic book rack at the Walgreens on Manchester Road in Ballwin, Missouri. The opening sequence blew my mind, and I still get a thrill reading it years later. The complete three-issue story is one of the few mid-80s superhero yarns that still holds up for me as an adult reader, and though I no longer have the complete Stern/Buscema run, I’ve read it a bunch of times. These days, I just reserve a little space for my absolutely favorite Avengers stories, including this one.

It begins the day Colossus joins the Avengers, and opens with Storm descending from the sky like the weather goddess she is. Goddess and, as we discover, an Avenger.

I love the mood and tone of Stern’s captions on that page and generally for the entire run. Despite some typical comic-book clunkers such as expositional thought balloons, his prose always made me feel like I was reading a book for adults, not children. But back to our story.

The President of the USA escorts Colossus onto the scene to induct him into the Avengers and become an American citizen.

What’s that? You don’t remember Storm and Colossus being Avengers in the 1980s? Pay attention!

Iron Man flies onto the scene to give a gift to the POTUS on this momentous occasion. And gosh, isn’t Tony Stark such a great guy?

Just tug a little harder, sir! But suddenly…

Wait, what? The whole team just got nuked into oblivion? Is the series cancelled? What do you do after THAT?!

If you’re a super-villain, you gloat.

The nuke was just a warm-up. Now, it really starts to hit the fan. It turns out that Kang’s time-traveling adventures are creating all kinds of alternate timelines, and each has its own Kang. A mysterious council has summoned our nuke-loving Kang to their secret chamber in a limbo outside of time. When Kang questions the council’s authority to tell him what a massive screw-up he is for getting his entire planet destroyed, they reveal themselves to be a trio of alternate Kangs!

They kill him then adjourn and vanish. But one Kang comes back to snoop around the building, and who does he run into? One of the other Kangs! John Buscema gives the Jack Kirby treatment to the wonders inside the secret chambers inside the secret chamber, and Kang gives Kang a tour of his time-monitoring operations.

In fewer than ten pages, Stern gave the Avengers new members, nuked an entire planet, discovered alternate realities, hatched a nefarious plot of betrayal and murder spanning centuries and multiple universes, and plumbed the depths of grief, greed, and evil in the human soul. And the real Avengers, the stars of the series, haven’t even appeared yet!

The heroes show up soon enough, and the adventure is a solid one with plenty of twists and turns and mysteries to solve. Despite his goofy outfit, Kang is a strong villain with a plan he seems entirely capable of pulling off, and he steals the show in a way usually reserved for Dr. Doom. Fitting, I suppose, since Kang originally came from the future using Doom’s time-machine and, after becoming an Egyptian Pharaoh in the past, patterned himself after Doom. As far as alternate timeline stories go, I’d rather re-read this classic than re-watch Avengers Endgame any day.

Collector’s Guide: The full story appears in issues 267, 268, and 269 of the original Avengers series, and they cost about $3 to $6 each, depending on their grade.

A big “thank you” to this blog’s readers for making it possible to get these issues as part of my ongoing big box of free comics series.

indie box: Utopiates

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This week’s pick from the indie comics short box is Utopiates, a four-issue black-and-white series focusing on characters who take a drug that temporarily alters their personality and emotions, but with violent and disastrous results.

The first issue opens with a full page of Gen-X angst that sets up what, at first, appears to be a simple tale about a young man who takes a drug to escape the dull hopelessness of his life.

By the end of the first issue, it becomes clear this tale is not so simple. We learn that the drug is somehow giving people specific personality traits because it is composed of genetic material copied from specific people. I don’t buy that bit of pseudo-science at all, but playing along with this central idea of injecting genetics like drugs does make for some interesting developments. For example, the young man in the first issue starts killing people his drug dealer assigns to him, but when he injects some Jack Ruby DNA, he kills the wrong person. This doesn’t end well for him.

The second and third issue tell the story of a different young man who served in a war as part of a private military contractor’s invasion force. We learn that he and all the contractors were constantly hopped up on one of these genetic drugs to reduce their fear and increase ferocity.

This two-part story shows how the soldier does not adapt well to normal society after his contract is complete and he can no longer get his drugs. The robotic psych counselor the company forces him to see is useless, so the young man starts looking for a source of the drug. His path leads him to discover whose DNA he and his troops were injecting.

The fourth issue tells the story of another former soldier, a woman who becomes an assassin for hire much like the character in the first issue. It suggests that the mysterious drug dealer in all these stories is giving out these gene-drugs and manipulating people as an art form. I found that motivation a bit lackluster, but I suspect that if the series had continued, then writer Josh Finney would have given us more depth and detail about what makes the dealer tick.

I love the artwork in this series, with Finney collaborating with artist Kat Rocha to produce moody, dramatic pages that look amazing without color. I don’t know why the series ended, but it feels like it could be a treatment for an ongoing TV series with action, adventure, mystery, futurism, and a bit of social commentary. Finally, it’s possible that Finney took the name of the series from a 1964 book detailing research into why people take LSD. You can read a review and summary of that book in the University of Chicago archives.

The four issues of Utopiates make a fairly quick but thought-provoking read, and you can have them for about $2 a piece.

Collector’s Guide: Utopiates #1-4; Bloodfire Studio, 2006.