What’s distracting me right now: Comics

I love Comixology Unlimited! $6 a month, and I get access to what seems like tens of thousands of comics that I can read any time I want. Marvel, Image, Dynamite, IDW… nearly every American publisher is represented, plus a bunch of European and Manga titles. I had to crack open a beer and celebrate on the day that DC joined the library.

Among all the choices, in the last few months there have been three series that have really stood out to me, hitting that spot of exactly what I want in a comic. Here’s a quick bit on each of them:

Astro City
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Brent Anderson and others
52 issues
2013–2018
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)
OK, I’m an old-school comic reader. I don’t like my comics to be super-short (decompressed) with tons splash pages and not much exposition. Also, I kind of like it when the character-designs are kind of cheesy or campy, but the stories are taken seriously. That’s what you get with Astro City. This is one of those ‘analog’ books (see my post on Black Hammer) where there’s a knock-off version of Superman, a version of Wonder Woman, a version of Doctor Strange, etc, etc. Mostly, Busiek focuses on short stories in his Astro City universe (1-to-3 issues long). Sometimes he focuses on his superheroes; then, at other times, he focuses on ‘regular folks’ who are somehow caught up in the lives of these superheroes. If you check out the series, you’ll meet a woman who works as the personal assistant to the Sorcerer Supreme—later you mean the Sorcerer Supreme’s lawyer. There’s a woman who salvages robots that have been built my evil geniuses—and consequently destroyed by heroes. Even an alien pre-teen who gives us his perspective on what it’s like to have the Fantastic Four ‘invade’ your extra-dimensional, totalitarian society (ala the Negative Zone). Very fun. I’d recommend this series for any comic fan of the 70s or 80s.

GI Joe: Real American Hero, Vol. 2
Writer: Larry Hama
Artists: S.L. Gallant and others
Publisher: IDW
2010–Present
112 Issues (and still counting…)
Speaking of 80s nostalgia. IDW tapped into it big time when they hired Larry Hama to continue his 80s run on GI Joe: Real American Hero. From 1982 to 1994, Hama was the main creative force behind all 155 issues of the original series. With IDW’s help, he kicked off a new run in 2012, starting with issue #156. A lot of people my age loved those GI Joe comics in the 80s—not to mention the cartoon and the toys. I was shocked at how well Hama captures the feel of that original run. You’ve got all of the same outlandish villains and outfits and codenames, but again (like Astro City) the crazy sci-fi plots are presented with just the right level of seriousness and humor.
But my favorite issues are when Hama gets gritty and detailed with what seem to be very well-researched spotlights on different aspects of military life. I remember in the original 80s run, one of my favorite issues involved this technical explanation of what it’s like to man a hovercraft. In this present day series, he does the same thing. He’s got stories devoted to tactics in a tank duel, a story on combat-survival, a sniper tactics battle on a mountain range that looks like it could be Afghanistan. So far, the new run has been chugging along for over a hundred issues, and I hope it’s been a big success for IDW because I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

The Boys
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artists: Darick Robertson and others
Publisher: Dynamite
2006–2012
72 Issues (Including several Spin-Off Specials and Mini-Series)
The last series I’ve been working my way through is The Boys. It’s written by Garth Ennis, who is probably best known for his ‘Preacher’ series, which has been adapted as a TV series on AMC. Ennis revels in creating stories and characters that are abundantly non-PC. He tries hard to offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum. So this book has some pretty raunchy scenes, hyper-violence, and homophobic and misogynistic characters—and it’s probably not for everybody.
Like Astro City, it’s set in a superhero analog universe, with its own version of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. But in this world, almost all superheroes are phonies—they’re just in it for the money, the fame, and whatever particular form of vice gets them off. The ‘real heroes’ in the series are a team of spies and enforcers (‘The Boys’) who help keep the supers in check—or put them down when they commit some act that is too despicable to let slide.
I really like the concept of this series—which, like Preacher, is also being adapted for TV (this time by Amazon Prime). But sometimes ‘The Boys’ tries so hard to be outrageously raunchy that it ends up being almost Puritanical. There are times in the story where it seems like being ‘hedonistic’ becomes shorthand for being ‘evil.’ But the two things are not necessarily the same. Also a lot of the book is about the political cultures of Britain and America, and those sections seem kind of dated in a post-2016 world. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s updated to small-screen.

I just read: You Know You Want This

You Know You Want This is a collection of short stories by Kristen Roupenian. I had so much fun reading these stories! Which is sort of a weird thing to say because they are all pretty dark. Some of the stories turn violent, and some of them involve magic or horror elements (although I’m dubious as to whether the horror elements are ‘real’ or just in some of the protagonists’ heads). The stories are mostly about love and desire, and how we can twist ourselves up in what we see in ourselves and what we hope other people see in us.

Does a fantastic job of getting into the head of her male characters. I think she’s spot-on with her characterization of males navigating their twenties and thirties. Maybe that says a lot about me. A lot of the male characters get caught in this loop of wanting to be the ‘nice guy,’ and they play into that, with alternating good and bad intentions.

I guess ‘Cat Person’ is the big draw here, because it was published in The New Yorker and generated lots of buzz. It’s a good kind of character piece, about a ‘boy’ and a girl flirting and fluttering around each other on the months leading up to a very memorable first date. The tone of the story really drew me in, because isn’t sure of herself, she isn’t sure of this dude she’s interested in, and the whole story becomes a sort of mystery. Is this guy a sort of lovable loser? Or is he just a plain loser with some masochistic and mysognistic baggage? The way both characters seem to vacillate and question each other (and themselves) will probably seem very familiar to anyone thinking back on their early days of dating.

The Good Guy follows similar themes, but over a longer period of time and from the male’s perspective. Reading these stories I could totally see Netflix or Hulu snapping up the rights to the whole collection and turning them into a series that would be sort of like a cross between You’re the Worst, ‘You,’ and the new Twilight Zone.

Here’s some micro reviews of some of the stories that that really stuck with me:

‘Look at Your Game, Girl’: Classic, coming-of-age creepy.

‘Sardines’: Excellent vignette of a bad mom and her worse daughter, with another truly skin-crawling ending.

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone: Psychoanalysis by way of a fairy tale.

Cat Person: Again, kind of ambiguous throughout. Where are we going with this? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the narrator’s crush, or cringe at him? But then a slap-in-the-face finale that resolves the question pretty definitively.

The Good Guy: Another excellent, if cringe-inducing, character study.

The Boy in the Pool: Who doesn’t remember watching those late-night cheesy thrillers on Showtime or Cinemax?

Scarred: Magical realism. Love how the main character sort of blithely takes on her role.

The Matchbox Sign: Oof. Maybe I’m choosing to interpret this one in a way that wasn’t intended, but this one was depressing and unnerving in just the right way.

Biter: A perfect sort of snarky, dark note to end on.

This definitely put me in the mood for reading more great short stories. Here’s hoping I can find another collection as energizing as this one. Or that Roupenian will publish something else soon!

I just read: The Milkman

Lately I’ve been using the Libby app to try out a lot of ebooks and audiobooks that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The latest novel I discovered in this way is The Milkman (by Anna Burns).

I don’t even think I looked at the blurb that closely. I read something about ‘surveillance’ and ‘paramilitary,’ and I think I assumed it would be a Black-Mirror-esque sci-fi. That’s one really nice thing about these library-apps: you can pick up a book on a whim (and audiobook in this case) and often you end up pleasantly surprised.

I think the reason I assumed that Anna Burns had written some kind of near-future sci-fi was because the blurb and the book itself are deliberately oblique about the setting. But it seems very obvious that we’re kind of in a ‘whimsical’ version of 1970s Northern Ireland. I say ‘whimsical’ because there is a sort of stream-of-consciousness quality to the narration that pulls out the humor in small things, even though terrorism and sectarian intimidation are a daily concern.

The narrator is simply referred to a ‘middle sister,’ and that’s not some kind of ‘Handsmaid’ epithet, it’s simply her pecking order in her very large family. For the first few chapters, she’s like Belle from Beauty in the Beast. She’s been causing a commotion because she literally walks through her provincial town with her nose in a book. Soon middle sister is approached by her own version of ‘Gaston.’ He’s called the ‘Mlikman,’ and he’s a heavy-hitter in the local insurgency. He wants middle sister to be his kept woman.

Middle sister has seen friends and family members get swept up in the ‘Troubles’ and end up dead, so she has no interest in getting involved with the Milkman. But soon rumors are spreading, and most people believe she’s Milkman’s mistress, even though they’ve barely spoken a word. Middle sister feels intimidated and trapped. This is the gist of the book’s main plot, and it’s sounds pretty cool (sort of ‘You’ meets ‘Patriot Games’), but it’s not the main POINT of the book. The book is shooting for more of a sort of slice-of-life jaunt between multiple storylines in this community that is so narrow-minded and shell-shocked that it’s practically totalitarian. The resolution of the Milkman plot is sort of anticlimactic (and also revealed in the first sentence of the book).

Besides the Milkman, middle sister rambles on about several other off-beat characters. There’s ‘real milkman,’ ‘third brother-in-law,’ ’nuclear boy,’ ‘tablet girl,’ ‘sister of tablet girl,’ ‘Something McSomething,’ etc. In case you can’t tell, no one in the book is called by their real name. This is just one of the books many quirks. The narration (straight from middle sister’s head) is chatty and rambling, but also very lively. Middle sister repeats the same names and idioms over and over in short-succession, and she goes on long diversions from her main point. Often times these diversions end up being more important than her main train of thought. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narration-performance by Brid Brennan is excellent. I get tired and distracted trying to read long passages, and I’m not sure if I could have got through the book by reading.

But overall, it was a very pleasant surprise, and definitely a style and a setting that I’d never quite seen before. If you like multiple storylines in one book, an off-beat feminine perspective, and dreamy historical fiction, I’d say check this out. For some reason, it also kind of reminded me of Virgin Suicides (set in the 70s; a very distinctive narration style; and focused on immersing you in a tone and a feel, as opposed to driving a plot along), which to me is very high praise indeed!

I just read: Scythe

Scythe has one of those crazy, young-adult-sci-fi premises that you just have to check out. More unlikely than ‘Uglies,’ more convoluted than ‘The Maze Runner,’ there were several times when the world built by Neal Shusterman had me rolling my eyes and saying ‘There’s no way this would EVER happen!’ But every time that happened, Shusterman quickly amped up the plot with a swerve or kick-ass surprises to overcome my disbelief and keep me chugging along with the story.

Let me go thru the bonkers premise first. The main characters, Citra and Rowan live in a nearly perfect, nearly deathless society. A benevolent AI runs everything (truly benevolent, no twists there, unless they come in the sequel), and death has been ‘cured.’ People are rejuvenated before they can die from old-age. If they fall victim to accidents then they are resurrected. And suicides are not allowed , although there is such a thing as ‘splatting.’ (You might be able to figure out what that is. It’s one of the many cool ideas that Shusterman comes up with while exploring his post-mortal world.)

A society of ‘Scythes’ have been created to control population growth. Although the AI runs everything else in the world, the stakes of human mortality are considered too weighty for its impersonal, computer brain. So the people who are chosen as Scythes have free reign to kill whomever they want, in whatever method they want.

Wai… wha?

So why would a perfectly utopian AI delegate such a dicey, utterly-permanent task to humans, when it is controlling everything else? If society is concerned about population-control, why wouldn’t they try contraception, as opposed to widespread assassinations?

Listen, you just got to go with it…

OK, but there’s one more weird thing… and if you read a lot of YA, you might be able to predict what it is… The Scythes become fully-legal assassins as teenagers. OK, so they can’t rent a car, but they can kill people with samurai swords and flamethrowers?

Needless to say, there are some Scythes (both younger and older) that let their power go to their heads. And Citra and Rowan quickly get sucked into their schemes. As they struggle against these sinister, blood-thirsty Scythes (and as Rowan struggles against his own emerging blood-thirsty urges), the plot takes some interesting twists, and the story reinvents itself with about three shifts in the status quo before it’s done. Which is pretty impressive, considering the book is only 450 pages long.

I’ll also give the author credit for not pushing his male and female protagonists into a full-blown romance—these teen’s lives are intense enough without everything going hormonal. With that said, there is some romantic tension. But that tension is nothing compared to the fact that Rowan and Citra eventually find themselves forced into a sadistic and arbitrary predicament where, in order for one of them to live, the other must die. How does Neal Shusterman get his two protagonists out of this particular conundrum? If I told you that, I’d be spoiling the ending. But let’s just say Shusteman wraps up his final chapters as deftly and as dramatically as he handles the rest of his book. I’m looking forward to checking out what happens in Book 2!

Writing Progress: Fall 2018

the third book in my Groundbreakers series. Hooray! The Groundbreaker books have all been shorter than my other novels, but nonetheless, that means I’m on my way to having seven novels finished. (And one novelette—I’m not forgetting about my invisible friends in Shadow Sideways!)

By the way, my tentative title for the Groundbreakers third book is ‘Blades of the Demigod.’ My intent was to always finish the third book Groundbreaker book and then release all the books together in a box set. But halfway through ‘Blades,’ I decided it needed to be more of a conclusion to a trilogy, as opposed to simply the third in a series of interconnected adventures. I thought the box set as a whole would be more satisfying to the reader if there was an underlying thread (or threat) that runs through all three books, which is then wrapped up in Book 3.

That plot point was the Ancient Ones, which were introduced in Book 1, and which are a big presence in the first two books, always there as this incomprehensible, immense threat in the background. You see, it’s revealed in Book 1 that the villainous Issulthraqis want to reunite the Ancient Ones and used their combined powers to re-write the world. My first iteration of Book 3 was a sort of detour adventure, that veered away from the Issulthraqis plot. But I realized with a few minor adjustments, I could rework the plot to intro more stakes in the third and final story, and to help create closure for the three books as a whole.

My original idea was to write six or seven Groundbreakers books, with the Ancient Ones threat always there in the background, but now, if I write a fourth book in the series, I can be completely free to take the story wherever I want. Or, if I move to something completely new, then at least the series has a bit of closure for now.

Which brings me to my next chunk of big news! I’ve already started my next novel. Maybe not the smartest move, considering ‘Blades’ is still in first-draft mode—and also I need to do some post-publication tweaks to Books 1 and 2 to make the story cohesive—but I was too excited about my new idea to hold off!

Fans of Idyll will be happy to know that I’m writing in science fiction again. This time, near-future sci-fi. The story is about what comes next, after iPhones and social media. What will it be like to live in a world with A.I.s and organic upgrades that make us smarter, prettier, and more long-lived. Of course, as in all sci-fi, the world is never as bright and as shiny as it seems.

My working title for this new book is ‘The Fire and the Burned.’ My plan is for it to be a single, standalone novel. If I can finish it (working that third Groundbreakers book in the meantime, here and there) then I will have eight books in my oeuvre! Not quite Stephen King’s, but nothing to sneeze at either! Here’s to making it to double-digits one day!

I just read: Circe

Circe is sort of an upmarket character-study, by way of classic mythology. I really enjoyed it; to me it really had a ‘literary’ vibe. Because of that, I’m not sure that a hardcore genre-fantasy fan would be as enthused as I was, although there is sorcery and monsters and—of course—gods and goddesses.

Anyone who’s taken Classic Literature in high school probably remembers Circe from The Odyssey. She was the mysterious enchantress who kept Odysseus captive on her island—and who turned his fellow sailors into pigs. Even in the Odyssey, Circe is presented as a complicated character. Both Odysseus’ captor and his mistress. A seductress and a seducee (is that a word?). A ‘dangerous woman’ and also an invaluable advisor. I guess the ancient Greeks were in love with anti-heroes, creating complicated characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Athena long before we had Tony Soprano, Claire Underwood, or that other Cersei from Game of Thrones.

In this 400-page novel, Madeline Miller expounds upon all of Circe’s life, not just that year she spent with the famous trickster from Ithaca. I was fascinated to see how much of Miller’s story had roots in actual ancient poems or stories. The plot was packed full of palace intrigue and familial drama. Of course, Miller seems to smooth over some parts, or flesh out others with her vivid imagination and a lovely sense of character-work.

The story kicks in shortly after the war of the old gods (the Titans) and the new gods (Zeus’ Olympians). Of course, the Olympians are victorious, and many of the most bellicose Titans are banished to an eternal hell. Circe is the immortal daughter of a Titan, Helios (god of the sun), and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the benefactor of a precarious truce with the Olympians; he is allowed to maintain his court and most of his power. Circe is not extraordinarily beautiful or overwhelmingly charming—which is to say she’s scorned by her divine family.

During her centuries-long coming-of-age, Circe realizes she is extraordinary in a different sort of way. She has powers that make her a new sort immortal—not a Titan or an Olympian, but something else that could upset the balance of the fragile peace. Upon discovering Circe’s new talents, Helios quickly agrees to Zeus’ suggestion that Circe be exiled to a solitary island on Earth.

That’s just the end of the first act. For an exile, Circe certainly gets around. Besides her affair with Odysseus, Circe has encounters with Daedalus (the famous inventor), Medea (her niece), the Minotaur (her nephew!), the six-headed monster Scylla (love the origin story here), Penelope (Odysseus’ wife, gulp!) and many more.

I especially like the last third of the book, when events turn to make Circe’s existence less lonesome, but many-times more perilous. (No spoilers!) I was so intrigued that I had jump on Wikipedia where I found out that once again the crazy events of the book were all partially based on real stories in antiquity. Circe was already a Classic anti-hero with a complicated past—even 2,500 years ago. And Madeline Miller does a fantastic job of bringing the character into the 21st Century and reintroducing her to modern readers in a most enchanting way.