big box of comics: Iron Fist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collector’s Guide:

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

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

a note about solving writing problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you know of any good self-assessments to help people identify their own mode of learning, please comment on this post.

New Season, New Book!

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

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

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

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

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

Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers!

Doom Endures!

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

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

indie box: March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Box of Comics: Maus

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

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

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

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

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

holiday memories, music, and misbehavior

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

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

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

What music piracy looked like in the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than once, we did.

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

postcards

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

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

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

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

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

Deck the Halls with Prehistoric Carnivores!

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

Wants, Needs, and Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, that’s enough.

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

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

The Secret Origin of Donny

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One of my favorite supporting characters to write in my fiction series is Donny. He’s uncouth, rough around the edges, blue collar, likes to fight, and sometimes says off-the-cuff, offensive things despite generally having a good heart. He’s a fun character when I need comedic relief, and he’s almost always played for laughs. Occasionally, he says something really wrong, learns a lesson from it, and grows as a person.

But Donny wasn’t cut from whole cloth. I spun him out of fond memories about a real-life Donny. Though I lost touch with the real Donny decades ago, I think he would be happy that his fictional namesake is a bad-ass musician and a valued crew member with hilarious scenes on the rock-and-roll adventure of a lifetime.

The fictional Donny combines the real Donny and his cousin Jimmy. I met Donny and Jimmy around 1998 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I was 24 and had my own apartment in a five-unit building on the edge of town where rent was lower compared to living near the college. Donny and Jimmy were 14, and I met them because Donny used to hang out with the even younger kids who lived next door: Dennison (literally the son of Dennis) and his little brother Jack. These kids were always playing in the yard and riding bikes up and down the street—as kids do—and I was often in my yard working on some visual art project that involved messy painting, or just playing guitar in the sunshine.

Kids are curious about that kind of stuff and ride by to check it out, so I got to know them. Then they found out I had a pet python who ate mice, and they wanted to see that, so I ended up spending a lot of time entertaining the neighborhood boys. My embarrassingly simple apartment was, to them, some kind of treehouse or clubhouse with a wildlife documentary, an art exhibit, and a killer soundtrack. And why not? At age 47, I’ve accepted that part of my brain will always be fourteen and see my living spaces as exactly that.

To be fair, they entertained me, too. Donny and Jimmy were hilarious! They had the kind of insane tales of reckless adventure, injury, and embarrassment that working-class midwestern boys thrive on. I should know, since I was one and probably, at heart, will always be. But it wasn’t just stories and jokes. After Donny and Jimmy had dropped by a few times, they invited me and my girlfriend to meet their family in the trailer park down the road and hang out for an evening.

My girlfriend—who had endured a couple surprise visits from Donny and Jimmy, rolled with the situation, and found them as hilarious as I did—was beyond awesome and handled the evening with grace and aplomb. She dressed up extra cute for that night and was a hit with the girls and wives there. After a tour of the trailer, which was basically some rooms and a hallway, we ended up drinking cheap American lager and playing cards with the adults and teens all night long. It was a chain-smoking, midwestern good time, and I don’t think either of us will ever forget it.

Somehow, Donny and Jimmy—at age fourteen—acquired a piece-of-shit Datsun that they took on wild rides through the nearby fields. They would come over to my place after their hell rides and tell me Datsun stories. They were trying to learn to power shift it, because the clutch was broken. And what fourteen-year-old has money to replace a clutch?

That fucking Datsun. We laughed so hard about it.

One day, Donny came over with this idea to write a song about the Datsun. All the kids knew I played guitar, so he brought lyrics. I will never forget them. “Datsun. It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. DATSUN! DATSUN!”

That was it! I threw together some riffs and recorded it on my old cassette-based Tascam four-track. We did another song which was something like Donny’s imaginary wrestling theme song: Daemonic Don. He pronounced it “Die-monic Don”, and that cracked me up. You’ll find a nod to that in the Meteor Mags story Old Enough. I assembled some distorted, drop-D riffs. It came out surprisingly well, and Donny loved it.

In 1999, I moved from Ypsi to San Diego. For a little while, I tried to keep in touch with the kids by sending them postcards. I’ve long since lost their addresses and can’t recall their last names, if I ever knew them at all.

But a few years ago, when I needed a name for a supporting character, I remembered Daemonic Don and his cousin Jimmy, and I thought it would be fun to channel my memories of those two teenage hellraisers into that character. They also inform more than a little bit about the adolescent character, Tarzi. The way those characters’ dialogues bounce back and forth with their older but equally reckless and so-called “auntie” Mags has a lot to do with my imagining how Donny and Jimmy would chat with me as their older guy neighbor—a role that ended up being somewhere between an adopted big brother and an uncle.

I think I filled a role in their lives because I was into all kinds of art and music, and so obviously not like their parents. They felt comfortable just being themselves, asking awkward questions about adult life, or making off-color jokes. In that sense, it wasn’t all that different from hanging out with the people I was in bands with or worked blue-collar jobs with at the time. I think the boys liked that I talked to them in the same no-bullshit style as I did with my friends. I know I always appreciated that in adults when I was a teenager. At that age, you want to be talked to, not talked down to.

Even if you are stripping the gears out of your Datsun by trying to power shift.

It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. Datsun.

Anyway, I doubt I will ever hear from Donny and Jimmy again, but I like to think they’d enjoy knowing they inspired one of my favorite supporting characters and might even enjoy reading his adventures. Hell, if those two were here right now, they’d probably be pressuring me to plug in my baritone guitar and write a new theme song.

And I would do it.

a holiday prayer for everyone

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Young Alex Power of Power Pack fame offers up an inclusive blessing for dinner with the Fantastic Four and crew in FF #1 (Marvel, 2011). Try it at your next family gathering!

the haunt of fear: a strange undertaking

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For Halloween, let’s take our minds off all the stressful current events. It’s time to relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned escapist fiction from EC Comics.

Here is a tale from The Haunt of Fear #6, originally published in 1951 and reprinted by Gemstone in 1994. It begins with a virulent epidemic.

The influenza epidemic eventually reaches the most prominent politician… Wait a minute. I was trying to escape current events! What’s next? Don’t tell me there’s a problem with ballots being improperly handled.

Improper ballot handling AND slow-moving lines of people? Damn it! I give up. Find your own Halloween stories! Reality is horrifying enough for me.

Revealed at Last: The Secret of the Perpetual Motion Comics Machine

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Today, after nearly nine years of blogging, I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.

Once upon a time, I reversed entropy.

In the early years of this blog, I sometimes mentioned my “top secret fifty-cent rack” where I got ridiculous deals on vintage and contemporary comics. I mean, they were ridiculous. For example, someone would dump Grant Morrison’s entire run on Animal Man, immaculately bagged and boarded in VF+ to NM condition. At fifty cents an issue, that find cost me $13.

If you’ve recently tried to collect that run, then you understand what I mean by ridiculous deals.

Or I’d find half of the Lucifer series, or an uninterrupted chunk of Sandman issues I was missing. Or, on two separate visits, I’d piece together the entire hologram cover series from a 1990s X-Men crossover. Then I’d find near-mint copies of complete story arcs from the Ultimate X-men series, plus random underground comix from the 1970s, current indie publishers I’d never heard of, and a staggering pile of colorful vintage awesomeness.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody was dumping Fantastic Four #1 from the 1960s. I wasn’t getting bloody rich at the fifty-cent rack. But I discovered so much there and did quite a bit of collecting. It was the best time to love comics.

Then it went away.

Forever.

Since it is gone for good, and the sacred secret no longer has any power over my destiny, I will divulge to you the fountain of comic book infinitude that fueled the early days of Mars Will Send No More.

Drum roll, please.

It was the Bookmans Book Store at 19th Avenue and Northern in Phoenix, Arizona.

Now, don’t be sad for the store. It did not die in a cataclysmic Crisis on Infinite Crossover Wars event. It is still there, selling second-hand books, video games, movies, toys, and musical instruments. You can take stuff in, and they offer you cash or a significantly larger store credit. You can also drop in empty-handed to shop for decent deals on slightly used stuff.

But several years ago, the top-secret rack died. And it died without a warning.

I had no idea until one day I walked in and discovered the horror they had made of my paradise. The shelves were moved to a different location and changed to a dollar rack. The quality of the comics decreased, the shelf size decreased, and the price went up.

A golden age had ended.

The epic was over.

But I recall when the golden age began. At a friend’s invitation, I visited Bookmans for the first time with her. It did not take her long to wonder what horrifying hell she had created for herself. The comic book rack was a huge set of shelves with not just hundreds but thousands of books. I spent hours looking through them all! Every single one! My friend told me it was okay and went to one of the posh reading corners to enjoy a book.

But just between you and me, she never invited me there again.

I’m just kidding. We went back there a bunch of times together. And I got hundreds of comics from that place. Stacks of hundreds at a time. Every couple of months, for years.

It was not merely a fifty-cent rack. If I brought in comics to the “trade counter”, and the books were in reasonable condition, Bookmans gave me twenty cents of store credit for them.

Do the math. If I have old comics I don’t want to read, then I take them to Bookmans and get twenty cents credit per book. But all I am there to do is buy their fifty-cent comics. With my credit, those now cost only thirty cents. If I come back and trade a stack of comics I picked up on my last visit and paid an effective rate of thirty cents for, and I get twenty cents credit for them again, then they only cost me ten cents in the long run.

If that sounds like a perpetual motion scam, then realize that the thermodynamic friction in the system was that I loved a ton of the books I found there, and I kept them.

Also, friction means, “You must work for it.” You need to feed energy into any system to power it. Every system is always losing energy through friction, expressed in terms of heat loss, which is called entropy. If you don’t add work to a system, it eventually stops.

So, I looked for ways to feed into the system for the lowest cost. Three things proved especially effective.

One, I scoured the city for “quarter” bins, especially where you could get five for a dollar. If I could get five for a dollar, then they cost twenty cents each, which was exactly how much store credit I could get for trade-in at Bookmans. I got some things worth keeping and re-reading from those bargain bins, and I traded in the rest of it for even better stuff at Bookmans. As a bonus, the stuff I traded in was fun to read and discover. It was not always material I wanted to keep, but it was something I was glad I had a chance to see, and occasionally would sell on eBay for more than I paid for it.

In another attempt at perpetual energy and comic books forever, I bought a collection from a friend, cleaned it up, sold a few things on eBay, kept a few gems, and traded in the rest. I did slightly better than break even on that venture, minus a little time and elbow grease, plus a few cool vintage things for my collection, and a bunch of fun stuff I scanned for this blog before parting with it.

But of all the perpetual motion schemes I tried, one remains unmatched in all of time and space. It was like I had broken the laws of physics and economics simultaneously. Anything and everything seemed possible.

Acting on a tip from a friend of a friend, I bought several long boxes at a pawn shop for a stupidly low cash price. I threw maybe $20 or $40 at this purchase, max.

I am such a social retard that I spent a couple hours in the parking lot behind the place, doing what I had to do to get the collection in order. Any civilized person would have fucked off and done his work in private. But to be fair, I did ask the shop if I could park in back and go through the goods. And they said yes.

They just didn’t realize I meant for maybe all afternoon.

In a dirt-alley parking lot with a beat-up old truck I later sold at a loss after some drunk driver totaled it, I cleaned up the collection, took stuff for myself, threw out damaged worthless issues, and organized other issues into runs that belonged together.

I picked out a couple things that sold on eBay for just enough to cover the entire cost of the long-box purchase. I broke even on the purchase through eBay sales, and still got twenty cents of store credit at Bookmans for a couple boxes’ worth of stuff I didn’t want. Hundreds of dollars of credit.

Take that, Isaac Newton. For one glorious moment in time, I stumbled upon a perpetual motion machine of comic books that generated pure profit and excess reading enjoyment.

That is how I reversed entropy, cheated thermodynamics, and ended up with forty short boxes of comic books lining the walls of my former office.

For a few years, it was comic book heaven. At one point, I took bagged and boarded comics and nailed them to the walls in orderly rows and columns—not through the book, just the bag and board. For a couple years, I changed the display every few months. One month my office would be nothing but Wolverine covers. Two months later: four walls of seven stripes in the colors of the rainbow, one color per stripe. Next, two walls of covers featuring awesome solo shots of my favorite heroines, and two walls of dinosaurs.

I went through a fuck-load of nails, bags, and boards.

But every single day, it was geek heaven to walk into that office to get some work done.

Yes, I miss it. Life happened, and I needed some cash, so I sold about thirty boxes from that collection. Though I didn’t get rich, and it was a desperate attempt to break even, I made a small profit when all was said and done. I took the profit I worked my ass off to get and immediately spent it on rent.

For my efforts, I was left standing with a few short boxes of my favorite comics.

As the old song goes: “Regrets? I’ve had a few.”

Until recently, I regretted selling off some of my treasures. But in the last couple of years, thanks to this blog’s readers, I’ve reacquired editions of the most awesome stuff, the stories I consider indispensable and love to read and re-read, even if they come back to me in an Omnibus or TPB format instead of the original issues. I got a hell of a bargain on them the first time around, and now this blog’s readers support me in getting a second chance.

Along the way, we discover new treasures.

Thank you.

Big Box of Comics: Runaways Omnibus

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The Runaways Omnibus is the latest treasure I got thanks to this blog’s readers who help me earn store credit at MyComicShop.com when they click through my affiliate links to find the books they want. My big box of comics series aims to bring the love full circle by sharing those treasures with you.

Once upon a time, I had all the single issues of the first and second Runaways volumes. But they took me a few years to collect, and I read a bunch of them out of order at different times. So, it was great fun to finally kick back and read the entire Brian K. Vaughan run in its original reading order with this Omnibus.

Teenagers are the stars of this series and, it’s fair to say, the target audience. I don’t read many books like that anymore, and most of the “young adult” category of fiction is lost on me. If I never hear another thing about Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter, it will be too soon. But author Brian K. Vaughan lists Harry Potter as one of the influences on this series, according to the original proposal included in the Omnibus. So, what about this foray into overtly young adult superhero fiction appeals to me?

My favorite thing is the character interaction. The dialogue is PG in terms of cursing, but our teenage heroes fling savage insults at each other when they aren’t getting along. Their reckless insensitivity seems authentically adolescent, and it acts as a foil to the intentional diversity of Vaughan’s cast. One of the characters, for example, uses the word “gay” as an insult—as in “superhero costumes are gay”—which creates tension because one of the characters is a girl who likes girls. One character is repeatedly ridiculed for being chubby, and one endures transphobic insults for being a gender-switching alien. One encounters casual racism for being Asian, and a cyborg is constantly reminded that machines are soulless, unfeeling, and less than human.

I love a diverse cast of characters, but sometimes authors shy away from the conflict that naturally arises when you put wildly different people together on the same team. And when I say “natural,” I mean it is so prevalent that we even studied this conflict in my graduate-level management classes. Globalization means we often work on teams of people with a vast array of cultural, ethnic, and gender identities, and Vaughan mines that situation for dramatic conflict. But along the way, Vaughan imbues each character with depth and humanity, contrasts that with the way people flippantly dehumanize each other for being different, and ultimately makes the experience rewarding by showing how these characters grow to accept their differences, work together, and form bonds of true friendship—even love.

Another thing I love about Runaways is that while it isn’t about a dystopia like Hunger Games and a zillion other young adult novels, you could say that the real dystopia for these characters is adulthood. The kids become disillusioned and distraught about grown-ups when they find out their parents are all child murderers who are sacrificing the souls of other kids in a weird pact to bring about the end of all humanity (except for six survivors). If that doesn’t breed a severe distrust of adults, I don’t know what would. The other adults in this series—from Marvel’s Avengers to two warring alien races who cannot make peace, from parents to the police—continually reinforce the Runaways’ conviction that adults suck.

Even as the characters grow up and mature throughout the series, they express disgust at the idea of adulthood. One of the worst ways one Runaway can insult another is to say, “Now you sound like our parents.” And when one character turns eighteen, someone asks if he should even be included in the group anymore. That same eighteen-year-old, now legally an adult, embarks upon a mission that tempts him to become a killer just like his parents, driving home the point that adults can’t be trusted.

That story arc expresses a major concern shared by many young people. We all tend to become more like our parents when we age, but does that mean we are doomed to make the same mistakes as them? How many people in their thirties or forties have had a moment where they realized they sounded or acted just like their mother or father, despite their youthful determination to never let that happen?

I like how Vaughan explores this tension, and I love the way the artwork brings the characters to life. The Omnibus is an excellent reproduction of the original issues and their gorgeous covers. Upon re-reading the forty-two issues collected here, only a few flaws nagged at me.

First, the dialogue relies heavily on pop culture references—even ones that seem oddly out of place, like kids born circa 1990 quoting lines from “classic” rock songs from the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, much of the slang might have been relevant to teenagers at the time but is already beginning to feel dated. I see it all the time in novels and comics that are trying to be “relatable” to today’s young audiences by trying to sound current or hip. Maybe that helps sell more books at the time, but it tends to distract from the quality of being timeless.

The other flawed aspect of these stories is the mystical evil beings called the Gibborim. They have a stupid, nonsensical plan for world domination, and their power levels and abilities make no sense either. They say they need a sacrifice of one innocent soul for twenty-five consecutive years to bring about the end of the world. What? Why not get all twenty-five souls at once then, and get on with the apocalypse? Or, if they can appear on Earth, why not kill the kids themselves instead of hiring six married couples to do it? Evil plans should at least make some sort of strategic sense.

Later in the series, the Gibborim have been banished to a kind of limbo where they need to eat another innocent soul to escape. But they didn’t seem to be doing anything about that until the plot allowed one of the Runaways to find them in limbo. So, these beings who are powerful enough to end humanity are… totally impotent? Pick one!

The only way I can see to resolve this problem is to assume the Gibborim were lying to the Runaways’ parents from the beginning, that they never had the power they claimed to have, and that the parents bought into a total scam due to their own greed and stupidity. I doubt that is what Vaughan had in mind, but it’s the only explanation I can think of that is consistent with the plot and fits with the theme that adults are bad.

Finally, I would gladly trade the “bonus material” in the Omnibus in exchange for the six-issue story by Joss Whedon that finished the 2005 series. I recall it as a good coda to Vaughan’s run.

Despite these minor problems, the Runaways Omnibus is a terrific read with great characters who have some wild adventures while dealing with the conflicting emotions and traumas of adolescence, struggling to create new identities for themselves after all that was familiar and secure about their childhood has been torn away.

Collector’s Guide: Runaways Omnibus, Marvel, 2018. Collects #1-18 of the original Runaways (2003) and #1-24 of Runaways (2005). The Omnibus is also on Amazon. For a less expensive digital version, you can now get a $55 edition for Kindle/Comixology called Runaways: The Complete Collection, a four-volume set with everything in the Omnibus plus the continuation of the Runaways series after Vaughan left.

My Favorite Explosion: An Akira Memoir

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Akira kicks so much ass that everyone who reviews comic books and animated movies has already been there. But let me add a personal postscript, because Akira and I have a history.

The film version of this monstrous manga wasn’t released in every major theater at once. It opened in a few U.S. cities, then a few more, then a few more. In the pages of the original Epic printings of this translated and colorized version, the film showings were announced in each issue. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, without Internet or social media, this film became legend.

My friend Dave took me to see it at a theater in downtown St. Louis, Missouri in what must have been its first run in U.S. theaters. The venue was known for showing independent and avant garde films we didn’t see in the suburbs back then. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and 17 with an ID got you into the theater. I’m fairly certain this was the Tivoli Theater, which has since closed and re-opened. The old Tivoli showed some non-rated and NC-17 films such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but I never saw them. I was only there for Akira, and Akira fried my brain.

I didn’t even know what the hell to think when the credits rolled. I thought I kind of maybe understood… something? But I loved the experience.

Later, I watched Akira a second time on video and realized what was happening, and I’ve watched it about a half dozen times since. The crazy thing is that the original manga is way more complicated and drawn out than the film, and even more epic in scope.

In print, the series takes a while to pick up steam, but my favorite issue rolls around when all the tension is set to explode. It explodes in the form of a bullet that kills one of Akira’s freaky little friends. Until then, for hundreds of pages, Akira was hardly more than a MacGuffin in child form. He never had any agency since being introduced. Characters told us we should fear him, but we as readers had never been shown a reason to.

But when Akira’s buddy is shot in the head, the mysterious title character freaks the fuck out and sets off a massive explosion on the scale of a nuclear bomb.

And creator Katsuhiro Otomo gives Akira an entire issue to blow it up!

BOOM.

Collector’s Guide: From Akira #16, Epic Comics, 1990. Story and Art by Katsuhiro Otomo; Coloring by Steve Oliff.

You’ll never find the entire series in stock on MyComicShop, though you might get lucky and see it on eBay as a full run for about $150.

For $180, you could own the 35th anniversary boxed set edition on Amazon. It isn’t fully colored like the Epic edition, but it restores the original back-to-front layout of the original Japanese editions.

If you prefer a digital and low-cost edition in English that reads front-to-back, Kindle in 2020 released the Akira series in a four-volume, black-and-white, “deluxe set” for about $16 ($4 per volume). Considering that the single issue featured in this post will cost you more than that in print, the digital edition is one hell of a buy and fun to read!

Come on and Give It to Me: A Ragman Memoir

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When I was a kid, Dad had a term for people who looked disheveled and messy: Rag-picker Joe. Eventually, I discovered it was a mild version of “Joe Shit the Rag Man”. Maybe Dad picked it up in the Marine Corps. It’s listed on a site of Marine slang, and Dad was a Drill Instructor in the early 1970s, when this phrase seems to have been at the peak of its popularity.

Rag-picker Joe made regular appearances in my childhood: sometimes as me when I couldn’t get my shirt tucked in or my cowlick to lie down, and sometimes as random people on the street seen from a car window, or someone in a retail store. Rag-picker Joe was everywhere.

In the summer of 2019, while looking through my late father’s personal effects, I found papers about a family tree that seemed to be the work of Dad’s mom—my grammy, who died in 2005. I’m sure it was her distinctive handwriting.

Back in the mid-1980s, I asked both sets of my grandparents for any information they could contribute to my junior-high genealogy project. They gave me next to nothing to go on, so I suspect Grammy gained additional information over the years.

Reviewing her notes was how I learned that Rag-picker Joe was not just a bit of slang. He was one of my ancestors.

I forget his last name, but his first name was Joseph, and he was from enough generations ago that I didn’t even bother to figure out the great-great-great or however many greats it was. His occupation of record? Ragman.

If you don’t know what a ragman is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know either, and I had to look it up. A ragman collected what we might think of now as junk or scrap, and even bones. I don’t know why people would buy bones, but I assume it was either for their nutritious value (soup stock, perhaps?) or for their household utility as material for buttons and knife handles.

The cousin of Joe Shit the Ragman was the Bone man, and these nearly extinct characters from more than a century ago went from town to town, supporting themselves on what meager coin they could make from selling other people’s cast-offs and throwaways.

Bleak as it sounds, the rag-and-bone man was a mobile thrift store and scrap yard, and he was “upcycling” before any of us invented hipster words for re-using old garbage. I imagine that being a ragman required Joe Shit to be a salesman, and no song expresses that rag-selling energy as well as Rag and Bones by the White Stripes.

Sell me that old junk, baby. Come on and give it to me!

In the fifteen months that passed since discovering the ragman of my childhood was part of my family, I have often wondered if Dad ever put that connection together. I wonder if he knew Rag-picker Joe was his great-grand-uncle or whatever it was. Did he know this bit of information when I was a kid, when he used Joe as an insult on a regular basis? Or did he, like me, have an epiphany about Joe when he saw Grammy’s research?

I also wonder about things the genealogy documents didn’t tell me but seem apparent from reading between the lines. If you go back just a generation or two beyond my grandparents, my family tree is full of immigrants who came to this country and survived in abject poverty, somehow, even if it meant carrying bones and rags from town to town in a fucking wheelbarrow.

It upsets me to see our national attitude and policies becoming so obviously anti-immigrant and anti-poor. But this isn’t the first time. This always happens in our country whenever our economy is disastrous or when people feel threatened. Anti-immigrant and overtly racist attitudes flourish in times of economic trouble. The rich pit the middle-class against the poor as enemies, and the rich get richer. These aren’t mysterious ideas any longer; they are statistical conclusions verified with data from more than two centuries of U.S. history.

I only bring it up because I think of Joseph, my distant relative, a man who died long before I was born. A man who died before he became a piece of slang in the urban dictionary. A man whose station in life was used as an insult, even though he was family. A man who must have lived at the absolute ass-end of society, but somehow survived to be listed in my family tree.

In memory of Rag-picker Joe and Joe Shit the Ragman, I’ll share with you the complete issue of The Brave and the Bold #196, where Batman teams up with Ragman.

I had this comic when I was around seven years old. Coming back to it forty years later reveals why I loved it so much. The prose from Bob Kanigher could use a little editing for adult readers, but his captions are more fun than most prose I see in novels these days, and Jim Aparo’s artwork is in fine form here.

This is obviously a comic for boys and, though I was a boy once, I would not recommend it to adult women due to the short shrift the women characters get here. None of them pass the Bechdel Test. They only exist as motivating plot points for male action.

This issue also has some too-convenient plotting in the way that serious injuries take exactly as much time to heal as the plot requires. Is that how it works when falling out of a window? I should fall out of the motherfuckers more often. In spandex.

Also, the re-cap of Ragman’s origin is pointless filler and stupid. Getting electrocuted with other people does not give you their traits. That’s the lowest rung of idiocy on the ladder of superhero origins, right below “Holy shit, gamma-ray exposure makes me bad-ass!”

Actually, gamma rays kill you. I’d prefer that authors stop insulting me with bogus reasons for powers, and instead tell me a story about an awesome character who has powers.

For these reasons, I wouldn’t put this issue in my list of all-time favorite comics, but it’s a cool time capsule from the late 1970s at DC, and it stars one of my ancestors.

Now let’s see how my great-great-grand-uncle Joe Shit the Ragman teams up with Batman to kick all kinds of ass.

Collector’s Guide: The Brave and the Bold #196; DC Comics, 1983.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell – now in print

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Five action-packed, cosmic episodes span time and space from 2.2 billion years ago to the end of the Milky Way galaxy!

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

The Crystal Core: 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.

The Hive: Everything goes swimmingly on Ceres, until the crew is attacked by predators who want to feed Mags and her friends to their babies.

The Singing Spell: 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.

A Distant Light: Join the space monkeys of Svoboda 9 as they say farewell to their beloved leader.

Antipodes: Meteor Mags and her crew descend to Earth to bring free energy to the people, but they find themselves in the middle of an intercontinental war.

Might be unsuitable for children or carbon-based life.

postcards

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Two fun postcards arrived in September. The first was a print of “Balladeer” by Jose Guadalupe Posada. My pen pal claims to have carried it around for more than twenty years before mailing it! I wonder if the guitarist was still alive back then…

The second postcard comes from the Tellus Science Museum I visited last year. It’s a lenticular print, meaning the image changes depending on the angle, and it has not two but six different images representing stages of continental drift.

Mom did not know when she sent it to me that I had been working on a story that involves continental drift, and the postcard made me realize I got something wrong in my story, despite all the research that went into it. The original draft got the date wrong about when Australia completely split from what is now Antarctica, and the error was off by about 470 million years. I’ve since made the correction. Thank you, educational postcard!

Here is a brief time-lapse video showing a few billion years of continental movement.

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.