Indie Box: Steak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Two Years of COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rampaging Dino Art by Luis V. Rey (Updated)

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

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

the more historically accurate update

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

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

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

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

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

Eleven Years on Mars

As of this week, Mars Will Send No More has been on WordPress for eleven years, and that must mean my forty-ninth birthday is only weeks away. I never expected either of us to last this long or have so much to say, but I guess we just got caught up in things.

A few months ago, I was talking to a family member about writing my most recent short story and how I estimated it would be around 16,000 words long. Her response was, “I don’t think I have 16,000 words to say about anything!

Clearly, I was not talking to a comic-book geek. How many of us comics fans have blogs (or now YouTube channels) and pour out thousands upon thousands of words every year? Some of us don’t even care if we get paid or if anyone reads. We love this particular storytelling medium and love talking or writing about it.

Over the past few years, besides sharing my writing and personal memoirs with you from time to time, this site’s main focus has been on Indie Comics and the Big Box of Comics. The former series features independent and creator-owned work, and the latter is a tribute to the treasures I occasionally afford thanks to readers who click though the affiliate links in my “Collectors’ Guides” to buy books.

As a result, my personal Indie Box has become several boxes, and the Big Box of Comics overflowed to the point that I needed to buy another bookshelf last year. My only regret is that I have not yet pounded out several thousands of words about some truly stellar series that are dear to my heart. But that’s something to pencil in for 2022.

Thank you for dropping by to read, comment, send me your work, share your discoveries, exchange vintage scans, and occasionally mail weird and wonderful things. You’ve made this a hell of a lot of fun for me.

February 2022 Update: While digging through the digital archives for dinosaur art to share, I realized what a ramshackle mess many of my older posts had become. They were originally formatted using an old WordPress system before “blocks” became the go-to method, and I’d assembled them with an older and now abandoned layout in mind. As a noobie blogger, I also had certain goals in mind that influenced how I did things in the early days, and those goals have been met and yet evolved and changed.

So, I upgraded old posts to the newer “blocks” and cleaned out many dead links, trashed some outdated or now irrelevant material, and deleted posts whose images were missing or corrupted. Along the way, I added hundreds of new links to specific posts because, for example, I would find a post from 2012 that discussed a random topic I have now covered more extensively.

It was no small task going through more than 1500 posts, but the archives now look and read better than ever: cleaner, more consistent, more inviting, and less cluttered. I hope they are now more fun to get lost in and explore for a few hours, and better at helping people discover comics and art that have rocked my world. Enjoy!

reflections on writing: Permanent Crescent

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The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take his revenge on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.

Download or preview a free PDF of this story.

Permanent Crescent was the story I worked on while also putting together The Second Omnibus, so it bears the responsibility of setting the tone for what comes next. It was fun to write and took about three months based on notes I’d compiled throughout the year.

The first scene I wrote was a nice way to open the floodgates for writing, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read it! I also drafted scenes which got heavily revised in terms of their points of view, tenses, and even which characters were involved. Hardly any scene survived in its original version.

As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Even when I felt unsure about what direction to take for the story, I figured, “What the hell? Let’s wing it and see what happens!” Eventually, the results of that “anything goes” approach got ironed out into a single story.

After trying things a few different ways, I settled on three points of view to tell the story: the hero, her nemesis, and my standard third-person omniscient narrator for the series. I felt multiple POVs were necessary to convey the ways in which the hero and the villain are similar in their general attitudes but intractably opposed.

By letting both the protagonist and antagonist tell parts of the story from their unique perspectives, I hoped to draw parallels between the ways they perceive their world and their situation. Some hints are obvious, such as the way they both refer to “vermin”, but with each considering the other to be the vermin. Similarly identical phrases and judgments are woven into their narratives.

Several scenes are written in first-person present tense, which I rarely use. In Permanent Crescent, my intent was to use that POV to create a sense of immediacy, to put the reader in a moment where anything might come next. In Mags’ first-person scenes, she mostly abandons her conventions from the first two omnibuses where she wrote in a journal or a letter. This time around, she speaks more directly to the reader, and her only epistolary contribution is a journal entry from 1966 where she gives relevant background about developing artificial gravity.

Getting all that sorted was a world of fun, but writing the story took me to dark places involving crime, cults, and the human (and feline) condition in general. At some point, I realized I wanted Mags to narrate a few scenes in a pulpy crime/detective style. So, I re-read the entire Criminal series to get that flavor and tone in my mind.

Permanent Crescent also reflects my feelings about the kind of urban decay I’ve lived in or visited many times in my life. The descriptive scenes about lunar cities are basically me writing about neighborhoods I’ve had the misfortune to experience. If I had to pick one song that sums up everything about that, it would be Spinal Tap’s Hell Hole.

I was a bit disheartened to discover an anime series has already blasted the Moon into a permanent crescent. It’s getting so that you can’t even blow up the Moon without someone else having done it first!

A planet in space

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I don’t know what “Assassination Classroom” was about, but they trashed the Moon.

Finally, I should mention how hard I tried to do the actual math for launching Patches out of a space cannon. I read a ridiculous amount of articles and papers about the problem, most of which were beyond my grasp. I tried multiple times to get scientists to help me, to no avail. I even created a spreadsheet full of formulas to do the math. At last, I needed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

But one way or another, we were launching Patches from a space cannon, and we damn well did it. If anyone wants to email the solution to me, I’d be thrilled.

Good luck with your next story, and pick up a free PDF copy of this one before it gets collected in another omnibus!

“They Called Us Enemy”: George Takei’s Memoir of the Japanese Internment Camps

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Racism and oppression based on race are nothing new to the United States. It was written into our original Constitution, and we had a full-blown war over it not too many generations ago. Judging from current events, that war left wounds that are far from healed even more than a century later. But one of the most overlooked parts of American history is how this nation treated its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

It happened at the same time we still pat ourselves on the back for because we opposed the Nazis. The Third Reich was herding Jews into ghettoes and eventually death camps, and the USA was the hero with the ethical high ground for opposing such inhumanity. That might be the morally satisfying story your grandparents remember about WWII—unless they were of Japanese descent. Here in the States, we were herding American citizens into camps of our own.

In 2019, former Star Trek star George Takei published a graphic novel about his experiences as a child in those camps. The narrative is interesting for the way it shows his multiple perspectives on the events at different times in his life. As a child on a train to the camps for the first time, protected by his parents from the true horror, he initially sees the detainment with a child’s sense of wonder at being on some new adventure.

As a teenager developing a broader historical perspective, he rages at his father for not violently resisting the incarceration.

As an older man, George comes to understand that his father and mother did everything in their power to do what was best for their children in a horrific situation no one should ever experience. Only later in life did he realize how much it meant for his mother to smuggle a sewing machine.

They Called Us Enemy includes a few framing sequences. One portrays George giving a TED Talk, which seems to be his presentation from 2014 in Kyoto, Japan.

I don’t know about you, but I think if I lived through what George did as a child, I would be bitter for a damn long time. Maybe forever. But George’s memoir continues through rebuilding his life after the war, getting involved in theater, landing his role as Sulu, and making peace with his past through political advocacy, non-profit work, and speaking to new audiences.

One would hope that George’s efforts to educate about that period of American history will prevent us from repeating horrors of the past. But it is difficult to maintain such hope in a time when thousands of people are held in similar camps for attempting to cross our border, where hundreds of thousands of people work as slave labor in prisons in a country with the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and where millions of people of color are being systematically disenfranchised though racist voting laws, gerrymandering, and the dismantling of election oversight committees.

But that’s what I love about Takei’s graphic novel. It doesn’t present an easy solution. It gets you thinking. It reminds you that if you don’t want the USA to be a nation governed by racist policy, then you need to get involved. You can’t just sit by and do nothing. They Called Us Enemy is both a cautionary and inspiring tale for those of us who envision a country where, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

On a related note, I recently discovered a Chris Hopkins series of paintings and drawings about the people who lived through the internment camps, and they range from powerful to heartbreaking.

Uncaged Songbird by Chris Hopkins. “In 1942, June Kikoshima and her family were forced to leave their Seattle home to be interned at Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. They were allowed to bring only two suitcases, and June chose to bring her violin instead of a second suitcase.”

Chris painted the cover of one of my favorite editions of old pirate biographies, and he also brought the Tuskegee Airmen to life with his brushes. You might have seen Chris’ paintings for 1980s movie posters such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Labyrinth, and Return of the Jedi. He currently has a gallery of dozens of paintings and drawings about the Japanese internment camps at http://www.chrishopkinsart.com/

The All-American Boy by Chris Hopkins

One thing the Hopkins paintings cover that the Takei story does not is the rule that people sent to those camps could not bring their pets. As sad as it is to leave behind possessions and people, there’s something especially sad about leaving behind a best friend and companion who lacks the words and pictures to even comprehend what is happening.

Girl Kitty by Chris Hopkins

Fortunately, George Takei and his artistic collaborators created words and pictures we can understand, relate to, and learn from. They Called Us Enemy is an educational yet personal account from a man who lived through the worst of times, and it deserves a place alongside Maus and March in your collection.

Shout out to my fellow blogger and comic-book enthusiast Ben Herman for introducing me to this book with his post about meeting George at a 2021 Comic Con.

Collector’s Guide: Available on Amazon in Kindle/Comixology format and paperback. Currently available in hardback on MyComicShop. George’s 1994 Pocket Books autobiography is also available at MyComicShop in paperback.

No Application for Justice: Marcus Rediker’s “The Slave Ship”

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The ship sailed beyond the sight of land, to a place where “there is no moral possibility of desertion, or application for justice.”

—James Stanfield, as qtd. by Rediker.

To board the slave ship was to abandon hope—unless one hoped for torture, degradation, and the destruction of human life in the name of commerce. Driven by profit motives, the wealthy of Europe engaged some of the most depraved men of their times to lead cruel voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. The center stage for this drama of human injustice was the slave ship, or slaver. Historian Marcus Rediker takes the reader on several hideous voyages across the Atlantic on these ships, telling the stories of the human lives that participated in the trade of captive Africans for money.

The Human Stories

Rediker primarily focuses on putting a human face on dehumanization. The Slave Ship covers 1700 to 1808, the period of the highest volume of slave trade by the British. Their sailors gave the journey from Africa to the Americas the name “the Middle Passage”. Subtitled “A Human History”, The Slave Ship examines the lives of key figures involved in the slave trade and the effects this unholy commerce wrought upon their lives. To call the trade horrifying hardly scratches the surface.

Rediker spares no gory detail in his recounting, save where the writers of the day could not even bring themselves to elaborate the torture and suffering that took place. Such was the case with James Field Stanfield, who witnessed what was “practised by the captain on an unfortunate female slave, of the age of eight or nine.” Field said of this event, “I cannot express it in words”, although it was “too atrocious and bloody to be passed over in silence” (Rediker, 152).

Rediker’s focus on human stories rather than facts and figures reminds us that the men perpetrating these crimes were not fantastic monsters but human beings. Men in Britain and the American colonies grew rich from the trade, men such as Humphry Morice and Henry Laurens. They were, after all, simply men, respected in their communities and occupying social positions of prestige and leadership.

The Slave Ship also recounts the lives of slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, who penned a tale of his experience aboard the slavers that contributed to the abolitionist movement with its tragic narrative, and men such as Job Ben Solomon. Solomon, a leader of his people, endured enslavement but was eventually recognized as a tribal leader by the British.

He returned to Africa not to liberate his people but to serve the interest of the Royal African Company, assisting the Europeans in putting even more Africans into slavery. Stories like this reveal the myth that the Atlantic slave trade simply consisted of European enslavement of Africans. Rediker tells of many African leaders and tribes who participated willingly, capturing peaceful people on their own continent to sell into slavery.

Rediker details the lives of John Newton and James Field Stanfield to paint portraits of the sailors on these terrible ships. Newton’s experience as a common sailor with a bad attitude eventually transformed him into an ardent abolitionist. Stanfield originally joined the slave trade to see the world and have adventures. He found despair, torture, and atrocity. He would write vivid narrative poetry that bolstered the abolitionist movement.

These were the fortunate ones, for Rediker tells many more tales of lives destroyed by the trade: free men reduced to slaves, families torn apart, tribes destroyed, healthy men crushed by disease and torture, and sailors reduced to empty shells after their voyages. By focusing on the human side of history, Rediker makes it come alive.

The Rise of Racism and Capitalism

The Slave Ship touches many times upon the relation of the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of racism. Before the Atlantic slave trade, it was uncommon for people to see other people divided only by the color of their skin. Anyone—black, white, or brown—could become a slave in those days.

The Atlantic slave trade, however, grouped all Africans of many cultures into one single group: black. Rediker explores how far the division of black and white could be taken, where light-skinned people could be “black” based on their social status, and “white” became synonymous with “free” even for dark-skinned people. It often depended on which side of the barricade one ended up when revolt broke out on the ship.

Rediker also relates the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of capitalism. Slave ships brought manufactured goods from the Americas back to Europe on the return leg of their journeys, stimulating manufacturing in the colonies. Also tabulated for the reader are the facts and figures of production: millions of pounds per year of rum, tobacco, and cotton produced with slave labor and exported to Europe.

Rediker could have spent more time on the rise of the corporation. While he mentions companies such as the Royal African Company formed solely for the purpose of enslaving human beings, he does not explore the lingering social impact of forming companies to profit from human misery. To see the lasting effects of this form of commerce, observe companies like Raytheon who profit by creating bombs with no other purpose than the mutilation and destruction of human beings. The Atlantic slave trade and other European ventures into the Americas founded this policy of corporate cruelty.

Rediker often returns to his theme of the slave trade’s destruction of lives—not just the lives of slaves, but of all those involved. When Rediker describes the incredible atrocities committed by sailors against their captives, the reader might form an idea of privileged white people abusing blacks. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the examination of the lives of the sailors. In most cases, captains victimized sailors to nearly the same degree they abused the slaves.

In Rediker’s portrait of the slave trade, the lines between the victimizer and the victimized disappear. What emerges is a web of cruelty that enveloped everyone it touched. Rediker tells of many sailors who were swindled into the voyages by unscrupulous means: through falsified debts in bars, threats of imprisonment, and false promises from recruiters.

In some sense, the sailors were captives just as much as the slaves, and their lives were wrecked just as thoroughly. Rediker tells of sailors cheated out of wages, abandoned in ports, riddled with disease and injury, and left to scrape a mean existence on the docks as homeless, penniless human wreckage. While the mortality rate of slaves on the ships was high, about one in four sailors died on the voyages, too.

It appears the only people to benefit from the Atlantic slave trade were the richest, most powerful men living far removed from the ships, reaping most of the profits and enduring none of the hardships.

Two Criticisms

Rediker’s approach to telling stories results in a narrative that jumps around chronologically. His approach shows how individuals changed over time, but makes it difficult to envision the flow of historical change. From an educational perspective, a single timeline would make the big picture clear. The Slave Ship seems to be several books combined into one, making an overview almost necessary for a complete understanding.

Because each chapter stands on its own, the reader runs into much unnecessary duplication. By the halfway point, the reader has already encountered the same or similar descriptions several times: slaves jumping overboard, manacles “excoriating” flesh, dysentery smearing the hold with excrement, sailors being swindled into signing on to the ships, and the speculum oris.

Each time these horrors appear in The Slave Ship, they receive a treatment as if they appear for the first time. This causes the book to lose momentum as it progresses. While it starts with a bang, the last third of the book includes many redundant descriptions.

While manacles get many paragraphs, world events sometimes receive much less. In a study of the development of capitalism, one might expect a bit more time studying various wars, inventions, and other world-shaking events. The development of ship-building from a hand-me-down trade to a full-blown global science merits a page or two. The relation between science and the slave trade bears more exploration.

Abolition movements receive a similar treatment. While Rediker speaks of the contributions of Equiano and Stanfield to the abolition movement, he does not spend much time discussing the movement itself. This might be an important part of the puzzle he leaves out. How the abolitionists contributed to the British and American bans on the Atlantic slave trade would form the proper end to this book.

Conclusion

What can we learn from The Slave Ship? Nothing good, it seems—only that humans require no fantastic gods or monsters to inflict cruelty upon them. They will take care of that themselves.

History bears out this lesson. From instruments of medieval torture to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, from the Nazi concentration camps to Ku Klux Klan lynchings, the greatest danger to man continues to be man himself. When his greed for money and power drives man’s capacity for cruelty, we find no limits to the savagery he will inflict upon others.

The Europeans un-ironically viewed themselves as civilized and the Africans they tortured as barbarians. Despite the years that have passed since the Atlantic slave trade, that attitude remains prevalent in many countries and cultures around the world. One group dehumanizes another group, and the cycle continues.

Is the entire planet a slave ship driven by greed, fear, and hate? Is there no application for justice? Are we doomed to destroy other people in the pursuit of profit forever? The Slave Ship raises these questions and leaves them unanswered, while brutality in the name of commerce continues to destroy lives around the world in the twenty-first century.

Collector’s Guide: The Slave Ship: A Human History is available on Amazon in ebook or paperback or hardback. Marcus Rediker also wrote one my favorite books about Atlantic pirates and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea about general conditions of life at sea in that era.

Indie Box: Criminal by Brubaker and Phillips

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Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has long been one of all-time favorite works of fiction in any medium, and the greatest crime is that I’ve never written about it since discovering it around thirteen years ago.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged desperado.

My first exposure to this prolific creative team was the Sleeper series, which was either the first or second time Brubaker and Phillips worked together. Set in the same “universe” as the WildC.A.T.s (created by Jim Lee) and featuring the villainous mastermind Tao (created by Alan Moore), Sleeper was an unsettling combination of the two main elements which gave rise to the superhero genre: crime fiction and science fiction.

But Sleeper had little use for superheroes, beyond guest-starring Grifter. Instead, it focused on the adventures of villains doing covert operations for shadowy organizations. Subverting the superhero genre, Brubaker treated Sleeper like a pulp crime story with a first-person narration by a deeply broken, hardboiled protagonist you would expect to find in a noir detective novel.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged dude who dukes it out.

When I discovered Criminal shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to see what Brubaker and Phillips could do with a pulp crime story without any of the superpowers and sci-fi. I joined the ongoing series around the time the first storyline was wrapping up, so I got a subscription and enjoyed the rabid, edge-of-my-seat anticipation of every new issue.

But it’s hard to say why I love this series so much. It’s hopeless, bleak, and downright depressing. Anything resembling a character’s redemption arc is sure to end in tragedy and tears. Everyone is either broken, or despicable, or both. Characters tend to be either victims of abuse, or abusers, or both. Any brief moments of happiness are either doomed, or illusory, or both. The world of Criminal is an inescapable hell that destroys everyone, even the most powerful and the most innocent.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged downtrodden dame.

Maybe my fascination with the series is related to that part of the human mind that can’t resist looking at a crash on the highway. That sick part of our monkey brains that slows down to see the carnage until the road is backed up with gawkers for miles. It’s probably the part of our minds that is responsible for slasher flicks and so-called “disaster porn”, the part that craves horror and violence even in otherwise well-adjusted people who normally avoid such things. Maybe Criminal channels that aspect of human experience into fiction where it’s safe, where no one really gets hurt. You can gawk at a fictional train wreck and not feel guilty.

Criminal is also a remarkable feat of storytelling. You can read any one of the self-contained stories on its own or, as Brubaker often says, in any order at all. The stories feature numerous recurring characters connected by the strands of their web of crime, and the stories are not delivered in chronological order. You might meet someone in one story, then discover their childhood in another. Someone who dies in one story might appear years earlier in another.

Through it all, narrative captions tend to focus on one character’s internal experience or monologue per issue, sometimes describing the action that appears in the panels, but more often a step removed from the story that Phillips tells visually, giving insight into what characters are thinking or feeling. You also see certain events from multiple perspectives—sometimes from issue to issue, and sometimes from story to story. This approach amplifies the feeling that all events are connected and inevitable.

Things don’t end well for delusional and damaged detective dude.

Criminal influenced my approach to storytelling when I started writing fiction, but the criminals I write about revel in their lawless lifestyles. They experience horror, but they mostly enjoy being on the wrong side of the law and doing what they do. They have fun!

Any fun that Brubaker’s criminals enjoy is a short-lived uptick on their downward spiral to despair and disaster. If you’re looking for happy endings or uplifting messages about the human condition, Criminal isn’t for you. The most fortunate characters end up dead, and the least fortunate keep on living, trapped in Brubaker’s sprawling saga of doom, degradation, and mutual destruction.

But the series is so well-constructed, so impenetrably dark, and so well-told that I find it impossible to avert my eyes from the wreck, and I have read and re-read each story many times. I think the saving grace, what makes it possible to wander into this cruel, noir world, is that so many of the characters evoke sympathy and empathy. Many of Brubaker’s villains tend to have some spark of humanity that makes them relatable. They are rarely evil for the sake of being evil, like so many poorly done “bad guys”. Instead, they have been twisted and morally deformed by the awful events of their lives.

Even a complete scumbag such as Teeg Lawless, who often beats and abandons his two sons, is shown to believe that in his own fucked-up way, he thinks he loves his kids. His deranged and damaged brand of “love” is not one I would wish on any child, but it’s consistent with the way that even the worst villains in these tales tend to think of themselves as some kind of heroes, even when they are so incredibly wrong.

Things don’t end well for damaged and delusional deadbeat dad.

That’s something we need to think about more often but has become increasingly rare. It is now easier than ever for delusional people to find similarly deluded people in Internet echo chambers and rally around causes that range from nonsensical to dangerous. It has become increasingly easy for people to embrace messages of hate in the name of love, to proclaim treason as patriotism, to promote lies they accept as truth, and to advance anti-social policies under the guise of freedom.

We could all use a bit of self-reflection to step back and ask ourselves whether or not our heroic stances are, in fact, villainous. When writing a good fictitious villain, the best authors know that the villain should be a hero in his or her own narrative about the world.

But that isn’t something that’s only true in fiction. It works in stories because it expresses something true about real people. I often look back on my life and am filled with regret for things I did and mistakenly thought were right at the time, only to realize later that despite being a hero in my own story, I was the villain in someone else’s, and things I believed to be right were so very, very wrong.

Criminal warns this is a universal aspect of human experience, and if there is any moral compass or lesson to be learned from Brubaker’s tragic tales, it is that we need to question our own ideas, assumptions, decisions, and sense of justice. If we don’t, then we will remain as trapped as the characters in Criminal, and nothing good can come from that.

Collector’s Guide: Criminal is spread out over the first ten-issue series, the second seven-issue series, the third twelve-issue series, the four-issue The Last of the Innocent, a single-issue Special Edition, a tenth-anniversary Special Edition, a standalone graphic novel, and the standalone Wrong Time, Wrong Place, for which I can’t seem to find a link. Various TPBs and “deluxe” editions have collected parts of it, and they range from easily found to difficult. I would love to see a definitive Criminal Omnibus collecting the entire thing in one or two volumes, but that has yet to happen.

Rebel Girl: Notes on Writing Mags and Her Music

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A few years ago, I read a draft of a scene from the Meteor Mags stories to my workshop group. In the scene, our space-faring criminals turn on the ship’s radio in time to hear the DJ back-announce a few songs and say what comes next.

During the feedback session, one of my workshoppers asked, “How do you come up with all these crazy song titles and band names?”

I’m rarely stunned into silence on matters of writing, but that question hit me like the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. It took me a moment to realize that when it comes to music, I might as well be from another planet than some of my writing comrades.

My answer? “I didn’t make them up. Those are all real songs and real bands! And they kick ass!”

You can find a list of all the real songs the characters in the series have broadcast, performed, or just plain argued about on the unofficial soundtrack page of Mags’ website.

I like to think those songs might be played if Mags and Patches ever get made into a film or a cartoon. Nothing could make me happier than seeing and hearing Mags perform Porcupine Tree’s Trains as a solo piano piece in the dead of night by candlelight from Red Metal at Dawn, or her brilliant, butt-naked rendition of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Down on Me with a tribe of space monkeys and telepathic space octopuses in Small Flowers.

I have always felt that when the end credits roll on Mags’ first film, the song that must destroy the theater’s speakers is Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl.

It’s a fuckin’ barnburner.

I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna and the gang in Bikini Kill had in mind an even older song to which Rebel Girl traces its roots: a pro-labor, feminist acoustic jam by Hazel Dickens called The Rebel Girl.

Decades before Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter became a country-music hit in the States, multi-instrumentalist Hazel Dickens was singing pro-union, pro-people, and pro-women bluegrass songs in a folk-music vein, advocating through music and direct activism for America’s miners. She also eulogized her brother in song after he died of black lung disease.

Born into a coal-mining family, Hazel died in 2011, and you don’t hear about her very often these days. But she loved rebel girls, and I love her for that. The social problems she fearlessly addressed nearly a century ago have not yet been solved in our country, and maybe they will never be. But music gives me hope.

Most songs on the unofficial soundtrack page have a similar bit of history behind them and a thematic or emotional relevance to the stories. They appear in the text for a reason—even if the only reason is because Patches is obsessed with gangsta rap.

But my workshoppers were right to suspect that I have been making up a hell of a lot of other songs for my imaginary bands: the Psycho 78s (named after a line in the Misfits song Horror Business), the teenage Dumpster Kittens (who are some of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet despite singing about suicide, murder, interplanetary death armies, and nuclear infernos), and the Sterile Skins (a ska-punk crossover band that filled its choruses with the British “Oi!” despite being mostly Chicanos from SoCal).

But what I’ve never told my workshoppers (or anyone else, until now) is that for every imaginary song whose lyrics appear in the series, I put together real music.

And for that, I blame Greg.

Greg was the awesomest drummer I ever had the good fortune to share a house with, and it was a unique pleasure to hear him bashing away for hours in the basement. He was in a number of ass-kicking bands whose shows I enjoyed, and we’ve kept in touch over the years despite being thousands of miles apart now.

I miss that guy.

Back in 2015 or so, I sent him a message about how I wanted my characters to have their own unique songs, not just other people’s material they referred to. He told me, “Then you need to write those songs.”

He always had a way of cutting through my apparently complex problems with straight-forward advice.

That evening, I picked up an acoustic guitar and bashed out chords for the song that appears in the episode Whipping Boy. Ever since, I have done the same for every absolutely bonkers “imaginary” song that gets its lyrics printed in the series. It’s now a fundamental part of the creative process.

Whipping boy! What’s your name?

Whipping boy! A life of pain!

Maybe you should take the cash and run.

Maybe you should get yourself a gun,

before they kill your soul. Alright!

Most of the earlier songs can be played on a standard-issue acoustic guitar using basic power chords. After all, despite teaching several aspiring musicians about music theory and performing in small jazz combos, I still enjoy a straight-forward, punk-rock approach to songs you could perform drunk around a campfire.

But a few years ago, I got a baritone electric guitar from ESP. With its longer neck length and scale, and a weight that’s somewhere between a guitar and a bass, the baritone is designed to be tuned a fourth below standard guitar tuning, with a low A instead of a low E.

I tried that tuning, but after Wo Fat convinced me that C minor is the heaviest key in all eternity—and considering my love for Jimmy Page’s open-C tuning from Poor Tom on Led Zeppelin’s Coda—I tried a low C instead, keeping the standard string intervals from a normal tuning.

As far as C minor goes, one of my favorite heavy pieces in that key is Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Ukrainian pianist Anna Federova brings even more life to it than my concert recording of the composer performing it.

When I ran my C-tuned baritone guitar through a Logan Square Destroyer distortion pedal, ultimate heaviness resulted: crisp treble and gut-punching bass. I bought this pedal because I am a raving maniac for the first four or five Queens of the Stone Age albums (and their predecessor, Kyuss), so I thought it might help me get closer to that sound.

It did not disappoint.

To push heaviness a little further, I sometimes keep the C-based tuning but drop the low string to B flat—just like how you would tune to Drop D on a standard guitar. That gives me a power chord on the low three strings, and if I throw on a capo, I get some stupidly heavy sounds from the ESP in a variety of keys.

I am all about truly stupid levels of heaviness. If your riffs don’t give me permanent brain damage, then you’re wasting my time!

Maybe someday I’ll produce an album of these imaginary songs. But as much as I love to sing them, we need Mags or her teenage friend Sarah on the mic—not me.

I’m no brilliant singer, though I’ve never let that stop me from performing or recording. But I often fantasize about hammering the hell out of my baritone axe while someone more talented than me takes over on vocals. I like to think we’d give Alice in Chains a run for their money.

Happy Thanksgiving, Martians! This year I am thankful for ripping riffs and brutally heavy jams, for that annoying pain I get while building up my guitar callouses again, and for music in general. It remains one of the great joys of my life.

We own the sky! And don’t you ever forget it.

Meditation on the Monster: Godzilla Dominion

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The Dominion graphic novel takes place prior to the recent Godzilla Vs. Kong movie, and it earns a place in my pantheon of all-time favorite Godzilla stories for not only leaving out all the stupid human stuff, but for its poetic treatment of the radioactive reptile, and for its ass-kicking artwork by Drew Edward Johnson, with colors by Allen Passalaqua.

The author, Greg Keyes, wrote the novelizations for the two most recent Godzilla movies. He’s also written novels based on Pacific Rim, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Avengers, and other licensed properties. His written versions of Godzilla movies have received mixed reviews on Amazon: People either love them or hate them, without much middle ground.

But if you use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the prologue of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, then you’ll get a sense of the prose treatment Keyes uses to describe Godzilla. Dominion is like that gorgeous prologue sustained for an entire book.

Keyes tells a relatable tale of the monster’s search for a new home. Godzilla wants a place to settle down, somewhere he can chill out while rejuvenating his body and mind. But everywhere he goes, creepy weirdos get all up in his business. Flesh-eating vermin invade his old pad. He goes hungry for far too long. Despite winning his battles, he might be doomed to never know peace.

Keyes offers an unusual take on my favorite city-stomping hell-beast. In Dominion, Godzilla is more than a mindless force of destruction. He is in tune with the Earth and is a protector of the planet he calls home, waging war on other kaiju who would ignite global catastrophe by munching on nukes or destroying the ecological balance in the settings they invade.

Dominion paints an oddly heroic portrait that lends more depth to Godzilla than you might be accustomed to, but don’t expect Godzilla to be some peaceful, Earth-loving hippie. The monster’s battles in service of the big, ecological picture also wreak total havoc on ships, surfers, and off-shore drilling stations. Eco-sensitive Godzilla is the poster child for “collateral damage”.

As for the artwork, I absolutely love it. It looks a bit better in the digital version than the paperback, because many of the underwater pages are so dark that it helps to have your device backlighting them. And some of the glorious two-page panel layouts lose parts of images in the “gutter” of the paperback, while you can easily appreciate the entire page in digital format.

Although Dominion is a serious treatment of the king of monsters, the creators can’t resist sneaking in at least one comedic sound effect: HHGGIMPAAAK! I didn’t get the joke until my second read.

At times a thoughtful meditation on the monster and his life, Dominion still has plenty of awesomely rendered kaiju battles, explosions, and the larger-than-life chaos we expect from Godzilla. My favorite line? “They thought they could challenge him. They were wrong.”

Collector’s Guide: You can find either the paperback edition or the Kindle/Comixology edition on Amazon for less than $20.

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

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Thanks to Vamkire Trannel for the cover illustration!

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

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

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

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

What readers are saying about the series:

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

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

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

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

“So insane.”

578-page paperback edition or Kindle ebook

(154,000 words plus illustrations).

BUY IT ON AMAZON.

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day

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

Curse me for a papist, you bloody bilge rats! I almost forgot it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day! But what does it really mean to talk like a pirate? Is it mastery of the word “argh” and a few catchphrases from Treasure Island?

I think it runs deeper than that, deeper than aping some romanticized Disney version of the so-called Golden Age of Atlantic Piracy. It even goes beyond the English language, as thievery and butchery on the high seas have been around for as long as people have had ships. We can’t forget the pirates who kidnapped Julius Caesar, nor the Irish pirates like Grace O’Malley, nor the Somali pirates who are probably out there right now looking for their next score. Not a single one of them talks like Long John Silver.

Talking like a pirate requires getting inside the pirate mind. This goes beyond any one language or any single period in history. Once you understand who the pirate is, talking like her is almost an afterthought. So, who is she? Let me give you eight insights.

1. She’s poor. No one rich ever became a pirate. Stealing at sea is primarily an activity undertaken by those who have nothing of their own. Piracy is not a cute ride at an amusement park, nor a lark, nor an afternoon adventure. Piracy is a desperate response to desperate times by people whose very survival depends on taking for themselves—by force, if necessary—the resources they need to survive.

2. She’s out of work. Some of you might be thinking, “No rich people? But didn’t wealthy nations of Europe hire pirates?” Indeed they did. When an empire issued a “letter of marque”, it granted authority to one or more ships to go fuck up some other country’s shipping and entire economy that depended on shipping. But because that had an official permission, it wasn’t considered piracy. It was “privateering”. Strictly legal—at least in the eyes of the nation who issued the letter of marque.

Many pirates were at one time or other “legal” privateers. But if, for example, a war ended between two nations, the privateers were out of a job. There they were, alone, adrift at sea, with their income source vanishing into thin air. They were unemployed, and they needed to survive. All they had was their ship, their skills, and their willingness to work together to stay alive.

Also, many pirates around the world were fishers who weren’t catching enough in the off season to support themselves. Their income dried up, but they still needed to eat, and they had boats. At that point, taking some shit off another boat starts to sound like a good idea.

3. She’s been abused on the job, and she didn’t like it. Besides unemployment, the greatest contributor to classical Atlantic piracy was abusive work conditions. Not having a job truly sucks, but sometimes having a job is an even greater hell.

Many of the Atlantic Pirates around the turn of the eighteenth century were part of a labor rebellion against horrific conditions on military ships. They had been whipped nearly to death over minor infractions and lived through extreme cruelty at the hands of deranged officers. Many who became pirates were people who couldn’t exactly walk off their job, since their job was in the middle of the bloody sea. So, they simply took over the ship through violence.

Often, the previous captains were flogged or imprisoned or thrown to the sharks. And in their absence, a new kind of law took their place.

4. She’s an anarchist. Once the abusive captain was gone, what sort of order prevailed? A collective order, agreed upon by every member of the crew. In this new order, the captain was not an almighty authoritarian figure but served at the whim of the entire crew.

And the pirates created their own code, their own social order. They drafted articles of their piracy and signed them, including provisions that allowed for choosing new leadership, pensions for the disabled, and humane working conditions. Everyone got a share of the spoils, and unlike today’s CEOs, the captain took hardly more than any other crew member. Authority was de-centralized, democratic, and set to chart a course no national government could control.

5. She’s evil. Despite understanding piracy as a somewhat justifiable reaction to harsh economic and labor conditions, let’s not romanticize. Many pirate crews traded in captured slaves who were even less free than the pirates. Many destroyed settlements and slaughtered people who were no better off than they. Many committed atrocities that rivaled those of the very institutions they had rebelled against. Though much of a pirate’s life appears admirable through a certain lens, much of it is deplorable.

6. She knows she has not chosen the easy path, but she celebrates it. Classical pirates had a toast: “To a merry life, and a short one.” They knew they had escaped horror only to embrace constant danger, and their days were numbered. The pirate had no illusions about living forever, unless she was the religious type. To become a pirate was to accept impending death as the outcome, and vow to live life to its fullest until that unfortunate end. No one parties as hard as those who know they die tomorrow.

7. She’s a professional sailor. If you don’t know your mizzenmast from your poop deck, then you aren’t ready to be a pirate. Very few, if any, people besides professional sailors ever “fell into” piracy, despite what romantic fiction might want you to believe. Your typical classical pirate was either ex-military (Navy), or ex-privateer (government-sanctioned), or both, and many other pirates were fishers out of work in the off-season. All of them knew their vessels and what it took to survive on the open sea.

8. She’s tough as nails. The pirate is a survivor of horrific conditions I hope you and I never endure. She’s lived through physical torture, emotional trauma, extreme deprivation, malnutrition, mutilation, and the most brutal storms this godforsaken planet can throw at her. Do you still wonder why she gets into the rum a little too often? I don’t.

I’m sure I left something out, but if you remember these eight things about what it means to be a pirate, then I bet you can talk like a pirate any day of the year, regardless of your language, culture, or era.

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day! If you’re craving more awesome pirate history and want help finding awesome books about pirates, see my Library of Female Pirates.

Those demonized by the rulers of society as the common enemies of mankind, she suggested, were heroes to the common sailor.

One major reason was how the outlaws organized their ships… How did they manage to be “precisely just among themselves”?

What did justice mean to those whom the law sought to “bring to justice” by hanging?

—Marcus Rediker; Villains of All Nations, “The New Government of the Ship”, 2004.

Infinite Playground of Imagination

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

Back in 2017, in the first few months of my writers workshop, I received feedback from a science-fiction writer I respect and admire. As you might already know, many of the first thirty episodes of the Meteor Mags stories take place from 2027 to 2030. The feedback I got was that science-fiction stories should be set at least forty years into the future.

I think the idea was that this buffer of time gives some plausibility to the development of “futuristic” technologies. It might be a decent rule of thumb for aspiring SF writers. But futurism isn’t a central concept or concern in Mags’ stories, and as a lifelong reader of comic books, I could list dozens if not hundreds of sci-fi stories set in the present or the distant past.

I won’t belabor the point but merely offer an example: The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra was published from 2012 to 2015, but that absolutely insane sci-fi epic was set in the 1940s through the 1960s.

You can probably think of many more comic-book examples, such as the 1980s Watchmen series set in an alternate 1980s universe. Or you can go back to early prose classics from H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Any fan of steampunk can come up with science-fiction tales set in the Victorian era, and any Ray Bradbury fan knows that many once-futuristic dates in The Martian Chronicles have long since come and gone.

Science fiction’s future is old news.

The Meteor Mags stories take place in a solar system that shares many aspects of ours but is clearly different. One of the more obvious clues is how asteroids are named with their number after their name: Our “4 Vesta” is Mags’ “Vesta 4”. Call it an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, a Marvel What If scenario, or, for you Robert Heinlein geeks, a “ficton”. I don’t care. It’s just where Mags lives, and while it sometimes offers a commentary on or satire of our solar system, it’s unique unto itself.

In terms of satire, a few examples come to mind. The Musical Freedoms Act of 2019 is an obvious satire of the “Religious Freedom” laws that recently plagued the United States. In Jam Room, Mags mentions that Ted Nugent ran for President in 2020 but was assassinated. In Hunted to Extinction, Mags concludes a parody of gratuitous female shower scenes in SF movies with a comment about the Alien franchise.

Her solar system and ours have a few things in common, but they also have many differences.

In terms of divergent timelines, the divergences go back at least a few hundred years in the backstories about how Mags’ ancestors affected the golden age of Atlantic pirates in the 1700s and the economic landscape of Europe in the 1800s. Some of those events have been specifically mentioned in the text, some have been implied or alluded to, and some remain in my massive pile of notes for unwritten historical tales.

The history of space exploration and asteroid mining were influenced by Mags’ presence in her solar system, especially in terms of her contributions to localized gravity control. I do not expect that humans in our reality will have a lunar base established in 2023 nor be mining asteroids on a massive scale a few years later. We certainly will not be colonizing Mars and building major metropolises there in our current decade. These “futuristic” concepts overlap our timeline and are a direct consequence of the existence of Mags and her illustrious and unusually long-lived maternal ancestors.

A futuristic approach to science fiction is based on the idea that readers expect a story that is set in the future of their personal reality where scientific and technologic advancements have materialized. It’s a place where our dreams and aspirations about tech have come true. It’s a fantasy about where our species is headed. We might be headed toward utopia or dystopia, but these are somewhat distant futures that science fiction speculates about; hence the term “speculative fiction”.

That isn’t my approach at all. My approach is to consider myself as being Mags’ biographer. That position gives me not just the future to play with, but the past. The events relevant to her life include—as Carl Sagan liked to say—”billions and billions” of years, from the earliest days of her solar system to the heat death of her universe.

Even that timespan and location is too limited. I’ve already published a story about Patches that suggests the end of the universe is not the end for Mags and Patches, and I have notes for a story where Mags gets a glimpse of every possible alternate universe where she existed.

So, we’re way beyond guidelines to set these stories at some arbitrary number of years in our future. They don’t take place there. They take place in the infinite playground of my imagination.

The series has always—first and foremost—been about the characters and their friendships through the insane adventures they encounter. The science-fiction aspects are far less important to me than that emotional core. My intent is not to make fantasies about future technology seem plausible. I only want each story to be fun—fun for me to write, fun for my characters to live though, and fun for the readers who might consider the adventures of a hell-raising, shotgun-wielding, piano-playing, feline maniac with an odd assortment of space pets to be a nice break from the drudgery of everyday life.

As I’ve said before: This isn’t science fiction. It’s rock’n’roll wearing science-fiction clothes. Feel free to take yours off and join the party.

the octopus murder ballad

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They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps that statement is never more true than in the animal kingdom. In June, I posted a pre-publication draft of a story that involved a woman and a wasp attack. A couple nights ago, my sister called and told me an equally harrowing tale about how she had recently been attacked by a swarm of bees that came out of the ground! I knew some bees lived in the ground, but not massive hives of them.

In the same story, the narrator explained some of the more gruesome aspects of octopus reproduction—aspects I was unaware of when I first started writing octo stories back in 2015 or so. It turns out that in many cases, while the octos are getting their groove on, the female decides to strangle the male to death and eat him. That’s also her last meal, because she stops eating once she lays her eggs, and she dies around the time they hatch.

Nature is brutal!

Anyway, that should explain this poem whose title and lines are all eight syllables.

The Octopus Murder Ballad

Understand that with my three hearts,
I will love you three times as much:
passion signed in triplicate,
so you will always be with me.

You have all I long desired:
perception, beauty, daring, strength.
You outshine others like a star,
a blazing sun to stay with me.

You give me life and then you won’t
stop struggling. I thought you loved me.
I thought you wanted me. Husband.
Lover. You promised to help me.

Become this. Become us. We will
fill the ocean with our children.
You will die and I will eat you,
and we will never be apart.

This poem now appears in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus.

it’s a dry heat

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After twenty years in Phoenix, I thought I had seen it all. The monsoon season that peaks around August in Phoenix had done some terrible things to me. Once, I got caught on my bike in pitch-black night in a combination dust storm and rainstorm that was like a sheet of mud pouring right out of the sky.

Another time, I was trapped on my scooter in the middle of flooded streets, and cars and busses were trying to get past me in the dark, splashing massive waves against me, and I was pretty sure I was going to die before I got back to my lightless, powerless apartment to see if my cat was okay.

I guess at some point you just accept death as an option and keep going.

Tucson’s monsoons this year started earlier than I recall those in Phoenix rolling in, but they are no less violent. Last week, I got caught walking home from the store by a dust storm that turned the entire sky brown. Two days later, I got caught walking in one of the most insane rainstorms I have seen in twenty years. The big drops of sprinkles started in, and it wasn’t even minutes until I thought I was going to be knocked off my feet by the wind and drowned in the deluge at the side of the road. Cars and busses were pulling over because drivers couldn’t even see. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot.

So, Tucson monsoons surrounded by mountains and lightning, here is a poem for you. Now please stop trying to kill me.

The Flood

Grey mountains perforated the
underbelly of a great cloud
that admitted no horizon,
until nothing held back the rain.

City streets drowned, and vehicles
lost their way, taking with them
drivers, children, and families,
until no one held back the rain.

The entire valley filled with
rolling, churning torrents darkened
by earth and history of earth,
until no rim held back the rain.

No mortal knows what lies beyond,
where only floodwaters venture.
The deluge keeps her secrets well,
and she never forgets the rain.

This poem now appears in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus.

Reflections on Writing Dekarna Triumphant

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

In the recent stories Antipodes and The Martian Revolution, things have not gone according to Mags’ plans and desires. In Dekarna Triumphant, she runs into trouble at the South Pacific station she founded back in Small Flowers. Mags thinks she has the situation all under control and expects Dekarna and the baby reptiles will be part of her personal army, but that rug gets pulled out from under her, and Mags must battle a fearsome nemesis whose rage is completely justifiable.

The resultant story is an ass-kicking freakshow full of brutality, but with moments of descriptive natural beauty.

With The Martian Revolution, I had an absolute blast returning to the heart of the series by featuring Mags, Patches, and Tarzi in a series of violent, vulgar, comedic action scenes. But after that, I felt emotionally drawn to the plight of my evil space lizard and how she rages against it.

I love how Dekarna is so remorselessly evil but is all about her babies! I love how she would stop at nothing to protect and feed her young, but she is the last reptile you want to mess with.

I think that’s why she makes a good villain for Mags, because Mags is the same way—just a more mammalian version. Mags would happily bulldoze a billion people into a ditch if she thought it would save her cat. Dekarna would do the same for her babies.

Finding that heart of the heartless reptile really brought her to life for me. I also empathize with Dekarna’s quest to be free and happy. She has been used and abused by everyone in her life—from her former commander to Meteor Mags—and every time she almost achieved freedom, some other asshole came along to enslave her. It reminds me of trying to make a living in my twenties. All I wanted was to be free.

That’s Dekarna’s life in a nutshell, and I wanted to give her a story where she was, at last, completely free. Free, unleashed, and totally fucking evil.

In the confrontation, Mags faces defeat. While I love it when everything goes Mags’ way, struggling against overwhelming odds and sometimes failing makes for a more compelling story, especially in an ongoing series. I’ve often felt that many of the early stories in the series made it too easy for Mags to get what she wanted. Though they are fun adventure tales, the dramatic tension isn’t very heavy. It wasn’t until the tornado in Blind Alley Blues that Mags really began to confront enormous, high-stakes problems she couldn’t entirely overcome. And that is where, in my opinion, the series began a major improvement.

So, I was a bit shocked by the reaction when I told a member of my workshop group that Mags would be totally defeated in this episode. The response was, basically, “You can’t do that!” I have never in my life heard anyone get so angry over one of my plot decisions.

It didn’t upset me or sway me, though. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back would have been a much less significant film if everything went great for Luke Skywalker at the end. Instead, his secret base is destroyed, his training is interrupted before he gets any real skill, his best pal is kidnapped and frozen, his scumbag nemesis turns out to be his dad and kicks his ass, he gets his frickin’ hand chopped off, and he falls to his doom.

Now that’s a story!

So, no, I didn’t change my plans for Mags’ defeat. But the angry reaction to those plans made me happy. It made me happy to know that someone else in the universe loves Mags so much that merely the thought of her being defeated would upset them! Because you know what? It upsets me too. Every time I throw a dramatic monkey wrench into Mags’ plans or write her into awful situations where she suffers pain and loss, it upsets me.

I think it was Alan Moore who said that no matter how much you love your characters, you must do horrible things to them. But that advice doesn’t make it any easier to do. I go through a whole range of emotions when writing about Mags’ struggles, including anger and sadness.

The emotional payoff for me comes when she triumphs, or is rescued by her friends, or maintains her (mostly) unshakeable attitude of rage and defiance even when the odds are against her. I like seeing what she’s made of. I admire her strength—not just her physical strength, but her emotional and intellectual strength—and I believe her qualities are best illuminated when she faces the greatest challenges.

I confess that in this episode, I intentionally “painted myself into a corner” by writing Mags into a situation she could not possibly escape. I did it on purpose, to make things more dramatic, but it was not a decision that made the writing any easier! That was okay because both Mags and I needed a challenge. But the result was that I eventually had the entire story written except for half of one scene, because I didn’t have a clue about how to get Mags out of what happened to her.

One of the recurring themes in the series is how Mags’ rash and reckless overconfidence gets her into trouble she can’t escape without the help of her friends. So, confronted with an insurmountable obstacle in writing this episode, I asked a friend for help. I explained the situation to her, and we brainstormed ideas for about half an hour. At the end, we had come up with an idea so bonkers, so absolutely insane, that I knew I had to write it. Even though I had my doubts about the idea, I couldn’t not write it!

Anyway, I wrote it, loved it, and the rest is future history. But like Mags, I needed the help of a good friend to make it happen.

Dekarna Triumphant is a kind of Empire Strikes Back ending to what will be the second omnibus collection of stories. It concludes a story cycle that began after The Battle of Vesta 4. In my reflections on Battle, I explained how that story essentially wrapped up all the ideas I originally had for the series when I first started writing it seven years ago. I mentioned how completing that story left me with a solar system where anything was possible, and I was looking forward to indulging my imagination with subsequent tales.

The twelve episodes from Hunted to Extinction through Dekarna Triumphant represent three or four years of playing in those fields of imagination, taking characters in directions I never originally planned, incorporating different narrators and narrative techniques, exploring the consequences of what the early stories established, introducing new concepts and characters, and bringing additional depth and growth to old ones.

And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I had a lot going on in my life that I was unhappy about, but writing the adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was always a pleasure. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do, and I look forward to writing more. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together the second omnibus.

Bikinis, Beasts, and Bloodshed: Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl Omnibus

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I used to have a few of the single issues of Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl from Dymanite, and I admit they were a guilty pleasure. There is so much wrong with the classic jungle girl trope that I hardly know where to begin. On the other hand, how can I not love this idealized, bikini-clad beauty punching a pterodactyl in the frickin’ face—with a crowbar!

So, what the hell. Last month, I got the Omnibus edition that collects all three “seasons” of the series, and I was not disappointed by the lush depictions of savage dinosaurs, giant sea krakens, and other monstrosities in physical combat with Jana the jungle girl. I like heroines who kick major ass, and Jana kicks countless miles of ass in a non-stop adventure that takes her from one peril to the next in fast-paced action.

In fact, she fights so hard that her bra almost comes off, and that tells you just about everything you need to know about the vibe of this series.

Early on, the creative team lampshades their pandering to the male gaze by showing the screen of a video camera held by one of the male supporting characters. The screen is filled with Jana’s boobs in one panel, then her butt in the next. It’s a tongue-in-cheek self-reference for a series that clearly indulges the readers’ desire to look at Jana in all her unattainable glory, and I would be surprised to discover that any of those readers are women.

Despite the gratuitous yet awesomely rendered cheesecake, I can’t see this series as sexist or inherently degrading. As a character, Jana possesses a keen intelligence and a deep knowledge of the flora and fauna in her environment, even if she is ignorant of technologies and terminology of “the outside world”. She holds the moral high ground, proving herself ethically superior to the scumbags she encounters. Jana is strong both physically and in terms of her unassailable will power and confidence. Other than her portrayal on the cover, she is never really a “damsel in distress”, even though she does get into some jams—as every hero should. Jana is kind and loving to those who earn her trust, yet absolutely ready to end any human, animal, or monster who messes with her. Jana is both a protector and a destroyer, and though she parades through these pages in pin-up poses, she gives readers many reasons to respect and admire her character. She is like a female Conan.

The creative team, helmed by Frank Cho who draws the covers and co-plots the series, leans hard into the typical aspects of a jungle girl trope. Jana is a white girl in an animal-print bikini who has hairless legs and armpits despite never shaving, and picture-perfect, dirtless feet despite constantly traveling over rough terrain in her bare feet. Let’s not even discuss how she never has a stray pube despite the total lack of bikini waxing in her jungle. The bikini trope is leaned into so hard that Jana reveals she has various bikinis stashed in secret caches across the landscape, sometimes pausing the plot to change into a new animal print for no good reason.

As the series progresses, it incorporates other classic tropes and concepts dating back to around a century ago when the jungle girl became a mainstay of American fiction. The series has been compared to earlier “Lost World” stories, and the second and third seasons are rife with Lovecraftian beasts. Jungle Girl is like a story from 100 years ago, but produced with modern, high-quality artwork.

I agree with other reviewers who had “WTF” moments with the third season. For the entire third season, Jana ditches her bikini and wears a full-body wet suit after a dive, which makes sense, except that the other characters who needed wet suits lose them almost immediately. The plot veers from the absurd into the completely nonsensical, and it ends on a nearly incomprehensible note. It’s a weird stew that gives the impression that the creators wanted so much to incorporate all the vintage tropes that they forgot to have it make sense. I would say that Jungle Girl “jumps the shark” at a certain point, if not for the fact that the entire series consists of shark jumping.

While the Jungle Girl Omnibus: The Complete Collection will never be considered one of the great literary works of our time, it’s an action-packed ride for readers who want to see an ass-kicking beauty ride a mammoth, spear a T-Rex, fight a giant octopus, and bash the living daylights out of hordes of creepy weirdos. What it lacks in terms of plot coherency is made up for with dinosaur stampedes. What it lacks in sensitivity to female readers, it mostly makes up for by giving Jana such an admirable characterization that she is more than mere eye candy.

Though there’s plenty of that, too.

Collectors Guide: This Omnibus collection is easily found on Amazon in print and digital formats, and often in stock at MyComicShop.

Thus Rewarded Are Our Toils: The Unhappy Tale of Laika the Canine Cosmonaut

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I was thrilled last month when I read that NASA is sending squids into space. I’m a space-octopus enthusiast, so squids in space is something I can get excited about. But the article dashed my dreams with a cold dose of reality. After serving as research subjects, the helpless squids will be returned to Earth—frozen.

Their fate brings to mind another tragic tale: that of Laika, the canine cosmonaut. She was an abandoned puppy who became the first dog in space, but she was also abandoned a second time, in orbit. Though the details of her demise were obscured at the time, it’s now widely accepted that she died from overheating. She got so hot that it killed her. Think about that for a second. I don’t even like dogs, but that’s not a destiny I would wish on any of them.

Nick Abadzis tells her story in his graphic novel, Laika. Though he portrays her as an adorable and loving companion, and certainly the main character, Abadzis resists the urge to anthropomorphize her. He tells compelling, human tales about the researchers who worked with her, trained her, and tested her, but Laika remains resolutely canine.

The one artistic decision that bothers me is the author’s tendency to wax poetic as Laika orbits the Earth. While the decision lends the moment an inspirational grandeur befitting its place in the history of space exploration, I could not help but feel sad and angry knowing that the reality for the animal was intense suffering in her final moments, alone and without comfort inside a metal cage, tortured for a purpose she could never understand nor even desire.

But Abadzis knows these harsh facts, and he shows more than the public backlash from the world’s discovery that Laika died. He shows the grief on a personal level in the reactions of the woman who worked with Laika and built a bond of affection and trust, despite the experiments she oversaw that must have been absolutely terrifying for the animal.  

We as a species need to reconsider our choice to send intelligent, feeling animals into space to die. As much as we have benefitted from space exploration and research, the time has come to stop treating animals like disposable garbage in the pursuit of new horizons.

The inscription on the Soviet Monument to the Conquerors of Space speaks of the “reward for our toils”. Though the sentiment is noble, the reward for animals we send to space is not noble. It is only nightmare, or death.

And thus rewarded are our toils,
That having vanquished lawlessness and dark,
We have forged great flaming wings
For our
Nation
And this age of ours!

Monument to the Conquerors of Space, 1964.

Collector’s Guide: Laika is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle ebook. Her name appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

Around the World in Eight Arms: Traveling with Your Octopus

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Despite what my recent posts might lead you to believe, not every book I enjoy is full of brutal, blood-soaked dinosaur fights. I like some cute and lighthearted stuff, too! My summer reading list includes 2015’s charming and exquisitely illustrated Traveling with Your Octopus by Brian Kesinger. It’s a flight of pure fantasy where a woman and her octopus go on a round-the-world series of adventures without any regard for the realities of octopodal biology, a journey that takes them to deserts, islands, through the air, and even into space.

Traveling with Your Octopus is not a traditional narrative with prose. The focus is on the illustrations, with one full-page picture on the right-hand side depicting the travelers, accompanied by a facing page that contains only one or two sentences of humorous travel “tips” for that locale. As fun as it might have been to have a proper story, the pictures contain so much detail that they suggest a larger tale for each location and invite you to imagine your own story.

Victoria’s name matches her Victorian, steampunk-style world, a place simultaneously retro and futuristic. The globe-trotting Victoria always has a unique and fun outfit for each setting, even a dress embroidered with octopuses she wears for a Japanese tea ceremony, and she has no shortage of vehicular and animal-based transportation, from a submersible to a blimp to a stubborn camel. Victoria truly is a woman who has it all—and who better to share that with than her octopus friend!

In one of my short stories last year, I described a painting of the lead character done in the style of a multi-armed Hindu goddess, with an octopus supplying the extra arms. I thought that idea was pretty clever, but I discovered later that Victoria and Otto beat me to it years ago! Yes, I am jealous, but I will be looking for a print of this masterpiece. Here it is on a flyer for the original book release party.

The book is a quick read, but a quick read misses the point of savoring the delightful illustrations and letting them fuel your imagination. And if you find you can’t get enough of Victoria and Otto, you’ll be happy to know this is but one book in a series that involves more fun things to do with your pet octopus, from playing dress up to traveling through time, and even a coloring book!

Collector’s Guide: The Internet tells me that Kesinger has an Etsy site and his own website, but they do not appear to exist anymore. So, check out his entire octopus series on Amazon! (That link doesn’t include the 2020 time-travel book yet, but you can find it here.)