Begun, The Ember Wars Have

 The talented team-up of Jon Del Arroz and Richard Fox has born its first fruits.  Those of us smart enough to back the crowdfund for the comic adaptation of The Ember War saga have received the initial offering.

It lives up to the hype.

The full run of 120 pages aren’t slated for release until April, but backers recently received the 24-page Issue #1 which lays the groundwork for the coming interstellar conflagration.  Set sixty years in the future, humanity continues to do what humanity does – they fight.  The tools have changed, thanks to Marc Ibarra and his mysterious benefactor, but the law of scarcity and supply and demand still apply.  Which leaves the door open for conflict ranging from espionage of the corporate and governmental varieties, and big damn space battles as well.

The action opens with the infiltration of a mining colony that went dark and the search for survivors, then moves on to the broader shoot-em-up of fleet battles in space, and delivers a short vignette that hints at big doings afoot in the Earth’s galactic neighborhood, and finally ends with a terrible realization that echoes the great hook at the heart of Battlestar Galactica.

There’s a lot to pack into the first issue, and if it seems heavy on the plot set-ups and light on the resolutions, that’s likely because we’ve got another 96 pages worth of comic to get through.  The characterizations are a little thin, but again that has more to do with pacing for the long haul than any oversight on the writers’ part.  With such limited space to work with, the writers make heavy use of the time saving device of tropes and blank slate characters just waiting to be fully fleshed out later.  They do provide just enough meat to hold interest and make this reader want to learn more about who they are and what they face.

The art?  I’m not an art critic.  It works.  Jethro Morales’ aesthetic has enough detail to please the eye, without overwhelming the story with visuals for the sake of visuals.  The colors are vibrant, the lettering seamless, and everything fits together well.  One nice aspect of the artwork that jumps out even to my inexperienced eye is the dynamic layout.  Check out this scan of a few pages.  Note how often Jethro uses insets in splash pages or eschews rectangular frames.  That helps add to the visual appeal and drives the action forward.  It breaks things up and keeps you on your toes.

Finally, it’s worth noting that straight ahead sci-fi tales are woefully under-represented in the pages of comics.  The decision to bring a story like this – for those who care, it’s too early to tell if we’re looking at space opera or military SF – to the page represents a bold choice, and for my money it’s one that paid off in spades.  The cape genre has had over fifty years of domination and they’ve built and deconstructed and rebuilt those stories so often there just isn’t a whole lot of blood left in the super-stones.  The Ember War represents exactly the kind of diversity that mainstream comics lack – a diversity of genres and ideas.  It feels fresh and new in a way that no super-hero story can these days.

More so than any other comic that I’ve back, save perhaps only Alt*Hero: Q, this is one comic that has left me eager to get my mitts on the next issue.

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Alt*Hero: Q.2.1

If you experienced Savers Remorse when the chance to back Alt*Hero: Q came and went without your money in the pot, Arkhaven Comics has great news!  It also has great news for those of us interested in top-notch storytelling from Chuck Dixon.  After Indiegogo sabotaged the original crowdfunding campaign, Arkhaven set up a speakeasy style campaign to recover, and now they have a front-facing chance for those who didn’t get in on the ground floor.

Honestly, I’m not a big QAnon guy.  That’s a channer phenomenon, and the chans’ tactic of flooding the stream with gross-out images does a fine job keeping squares like me away from the deep lore.  The Q stuff that trickles out of containment is enough to keep me mildly curious, and this reimagining of Q as a classic-but-modern renegade superspy just piles on the intrigue.  So I’m going in, and you should consider going where we go all.  Looks like a lot of fun.

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Swiss Army Trash

“A hopeless man (“the autist”) stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body (“Daniel Radcliffe”) and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.”

Spoiler:  No, they really, REALLY don’t.  I’m not linking to this film because you shouldn’t watch it.  It’s gloriously bad in all the worst ways.

Threw on some trash to watch while alone for an afternoon doing some home repairs.  Since mainstream titles worth watching are hen’s teeth rare these days, I figured I’d give an indy title a shot.  Oops.  Swiss Army Man features an autist struggling to find meaning in his life who does befriend a dead body.  Their journey to escape the desert island and then find their way through the woods to civilization in the Pacific Northwest parallels their search for meaning.

As this is a film made by people far more clever than wise, they explicitly reject God early on in the process.  The corpse of Daniel Radcliffe has a lot of magic powers, but has a blank slate of a mind.  The Autist’s struggle to explain life to the not-quite-zombie wanders aimlessly, with a focus on the mechanics of eating, pooping, flatulence, and sex.  When they stumble upon a trash heap, the film-makers illustrate for Dead Radcliffe the concepts of empty (pizza box), smelly (empty Chinese takeout box), and old (Bible).  They go out of their way to use the Bible as a slate upon which the autist draws the concept of pooping by drawing an elephant pooping in brown smears.  Because the film-makers are Smart People who understand the concept of SUBTLE!

Naturally, the protagonist, having eliminated the Prime Meaning, struggles to help his man-child magic corpse appreciate that the true meaning of life is…I don’t know.  This is part buddy movie, part romance, part fever-dream, part never mind, it isn’t worth watching.  These days, even shallow minds quickly grasp what the film-makers are shooting for, deep minds analyze the deeper magic of what’s broken inside the film-makers, and the deepest thinkers start looking for ways the film-makers out clever themselves.

Because a world-view that abandons Truth cannot exist without a myriad of contradictions.  In this case, our autist recreates scenes from his own life, and passes them off as scenes from Dead Radcliffe’s life to jog his memory.  Why?  Doesn’t matter – the purpose is to show the autist building a new life for himself out of garbage.  Which results in long, lingering sequences of beautifully shot trash.  Really, the cinematography, music, and editing are first rate in these slow-motion and lovingly crafted images of pure trash.  Of course, what they’ve done is spit-shine garbage, and at the end of the day, that’s a pretty good metaphor for this whole movie.

Go to Church.  Read the bible.  Say your prayers.  You’ll find the meaning in life that so eludes the makers of this miserable little film.

 

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Kakerlacs, by Alexandru Constantin

The modern day monster genre suffers from a dearth of creativity that leaves most stories feeling like a scene from “The Monster Squad”.  Vampires?  Garlic.  Werewolf?  Silver.  Blue haired land whale?  Crime statistics and logic.  Or they feature protagonists who feel flatly perfect and impregnable.  Or they take place on the streets of another bland city on another bland night.

So it was with considerable pleasure that I read Alexandru Constantin’s Kakerlacs, in the latest issue of StoryHack.  His body-snatcher style villains lack an obvious weakness that the reader can trust will save the day.  The story opens with the small town drama that grounds the events in a reality and reminds the reader that the protagonist has a lot of other issues to deal with, even if he survives his encounter with the titular threat.  Best of all, the action takes place in a dusty desert one-stoplight town just a few minutes past the very edge of the LA megalopolis.  It’s a remote setting, and one you don’t see very often these days, and one that helps reinforce the isolation and vulnerability of the victims that pile up along the way.

Bold choices like that are par for the course with Constantin.  His “Tiger in the Garden” – the cover feature for the StoryHack Issue Zero – made me sit up and take notice of his talent.  He writes with an unabashed strength and ZFG masculine attitude that runs completely at odds with the passive and feminine stylings that have come to dominate the market these days.  It’s not a forced and artificial scenery-chewing approach to what drives men to risk life and limb for people they don’t even really like all that much.  His protagonists have a natural ebb and flow to their inner turmoil, a turmoil that most often has more to do with choosing between how best to use his talents to serve others than the choice between serving himself or others.

Take this brief passage:

Back in his truck, he sat in the unlit cab squeezing the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white.  Memories he didn’t want rushed through his mind.  Thoughts he’d left behind when he left so many years ago.  Coming back here had been a mistake.

In less competent hands, our protagonist would be considering running for the hills.  Here, he’s a strong man wrestling with his natural inclinations to solve his problems through the judicious application of heavy rocks to stubborn heads.  This internal battle for control over one’s emotions, the struggle to fight back smart instead of fast and dumb, just doesn’t show up in enough fiction these days.  It’s one of the more obvious aspects of the strength – in the physical and emotional sense rather than the qualitative sense – of Constantin’s writing.

His writing reminds me a lot of Schuyler Hernstrom, but where Hernstrom evokes the mythic and the epic tales of yesterday with soaring language and wide-ranging philosophical asides, Constantin kicks down the doors of contemporary literature stylings with a plain spoken and two fisted prose that brooks no admission nor apology for its raw power and ability to tap deep into what makes a man tick.

Kakerlacs is a great read with a great protagonist, a disgusting antagonist, and an dry and dusty setting as oppressive as the desert sun at noon-time.  Once again, I’m impressed by the people that Bryce has chose to surround me with, and can only trust his judgement that I belong on the page next to Constantin.

 

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Temple of Baktaar, by Jason Restrick

Bridging the gap between review and shill, it’s time to talk about StoryHack, an action and adventure short story periodical produced by Bryce Beattie.  He had the urge to produce a regular collection of short works that runs the gamut of genres, and that is a much bolder move than you might think.  The state of the art of marketing in today’s world of search engine optimization and direct focus marketing strategies and AI algorithms tells creatives that they should do one (genre) thing and do it well.  Readers don’t cross genres.  Target one niche audience.

That may be right, you may derive a lot more sales from a relentless focus on one niche like that, but the concept bores me to tears.  When Bryce announced his One Genre To Rule Them All, and that genre being action-adventure, I snatched at the ring like a toad-man with a frog in his throat.  And so you’ll see my own name gracing the cover of the second issue, but that’s not why I’m here today.  That’s just my oblique admission that this post might come off as a bit of a self-shill. My motives are as pure as the snows of nuclear winter, but that’s doesn’t mean I’m wrong when I say that Jason Restrick’s entry into the StoryHack library hits the jungle-action-with-a-side-helping-of-weird-tales nail on the head with a ten-pound sledgehammer.

The opening snatches you up in its arms like a 600-pound gorilla and the story doesn’t let go until the last passage and beyond.

Weary and haggard, I was alone in my study when there came a sound beyond the door.  Barely a knock: the faint thud of knuckles and the slow scrape of fingernails.  I started from my desk; not to flee – there was nowhere to run; nor to fight – but only to die on my feet.

The doorknob twitched.  The intruder stepped forth – a tall silhouette in the shadows.  Then, through my blurred vision I recognized the face of a friend, one who I had feared lost.

That’s how you start a story!  It’s a miniature drama all its own complete with mysteries set up and resolved, and more menace in the first two paragraphs than most Lovecraft knock-offs manage in a full blown novella, and we’re only getting started.  Our hero has to trek back to the source of his woes to remove the curse that afflicts, not himself – oh no, so such selfish motivations drive our hero – but to lift the curst on his friend, a curse he feels responsible for.  That’s the kind of unselfish effort that changes this from a tomb raider story to a heroic adventure, and part of the charm of the piece.

Restrick adopts the strong voice of a gentleman adventurer to tell this story of a lost temple that should have stayed lost, a cursed treasure recovered from degenerate jungle cultists, and a wise old hermit witchdoctor.  A tension runs through the story between the unshakable faith of the narrator and his best friend and confidante, and the dark and brooding menace of the jungle and temple ruins.  It speaks of danger at every turn, with only the brief solace provided by the wizened hedge wizard of the deepest Congo rainforest.

By my count the tale features at least three monsters, depending on how you want to count them, two warring gods in fine Weird Tales fashion, some hard hitting action scenes that leap from the page.  The amount of story packed into the brief pages of this tale is impressive, with nary a wasted word or thought.  Everything drives the plot forward towards a resolution that some may find unsatisfying, but which fans of the Weird Tales style will appreciate.

This is my goal as a writer.  To tell stories that can match the evocative spirit of the old stories as does Restrick’s “The Temple of Baktaar”.  It’s a story I’ve now re-read with a closer eye, not as a relaxing read, but as a writer looking to understand how Restrick manages to pull off this story.  It’s that good.

You can get yourself a copy here:

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Solemn Veterans Day

What can be said that hasn’t already.

Thank you boys for all of your sacrifices to make the world safe for whatever the hell it is they are doing down in Florida these days.

I’d feel bad about using today’s commemoration to score cheap political points, except that most of the soldiers I’ve ever known wouldn’t hesitate to laugh at the black humor that lies at the heart of the above joke.

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Must. Resist. Watchmen.

Amazon Prime has made Zack Snyder’s Watchmen available in both regular size and jumbo Director’s cut size, and it’s tempting to give it a re-watch.  So why does this post show an image of the Farrelley Brothers’ Something About Mary?

Because they are the same kind of movie.

Wipe the furrow from your brow, and I’ll explain.

The Farrelley Brothers made big money back in the late 90s-early aughts with a string of successful raunchy comedies that consisted of, as some wag more clever than I put it, “a whole lot of filler to sit through to get to four big belly laughs that will put you on the floor hoping your heart doesn’t give out.”  That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.  Films such as Me, Myself, and Irene, Dumb and Dumber, and KingPin, are like power hitters – their jokes strike out most of the time, but when they connect, the ball goes sailing out of the stadium.  That’s a smart plan, as audiences left their films remembering the high points rather than the long strings of dead air filled by flat and uninspired humor.

Which is exactly what happened with Watchman.  That film contains some of the most impressive moments of dread and anticipation ever put into a superhero movie.  Those imminently meme-worthy moments linger in your mind when you scroll through Amazon’s otherwise weak collection of films on offer, but Alan Moore’s dreary tale of miserable protagonists and mean-spirited philosophies – and Rorshach! – only parcels those morsels of goodness out to those willing to filter through the muck of his nihilism.

So it turns out, Alan Moore is the Farrelly Brothers of the comic book world.

And every time I’m tempted to give Watchmen a second chance, I remind myself that I’d rather have a line-up of guys with consistently high on-base percentages than one filled with power hitters.  The highs and lows might not be as high and low, but it’s a strategy that leads to a lot more consistent runs on the board, and one that delivers a lot more fun and a lot less disappointment.

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Deadpool: Too Soon? Yep

Mainstream comics are so much worse than I thought.  All dazzle, no razzle.

I’m a sucker for ten cent comics, particularly when they are bundled in plain brown wrappers and sold in ten packs to clear shelf space down at the local friendly comic and game and community based brand signal store.  Once my youngest daughter and I tossed the duplicates out, we were left with an even dozen cheap comics passed over by today’s more *koff* discerning comic book readers.

She wanted Spiderman first, and we got a side-story that explained how Doc Ock went forward in time, switched bodies with Peter Parker, got killed moments after downloading his brainwaves into a crawling wristband he shares with an AI copy of his beloved, then came back to the present to trick some rando clone-master villain into rebuilding him a body that he could redownload his brainwaves into and thus be reborn.  That sounds incredibly convoluted and gonzo and awesome, and the art was a great match for the over-the-top sensibility, but the writer never let you forget that he found the whole thing ridiculous to the point of stability.  He went through the motions, but couldn’t resist a lot of sly and smug asides to reassure you he is really above all this silliness.  It sucked all the life out of the story, as did the frequent, “Wouldn’t it be funny if”s.  It had a lot of potential, but refused to consistently treat the material with the respect it deserves.

The second story featured Deadpool and Squirrelgirl’s mutant offspring kidnapping them and then a black shadow guy attacks and it was so silly and then Deadpool’s demon wife shows up and the shadow is a demon stalking her because the real bad guy is toxic masculinity but they cut his johnson off and he’s sad because she cooks rocky mountain oysters and Spiderham and Howard the Duck are there because of course they are.  It’s a cavalcade of cringe as joke after joke falls flat and the writer even has an “explain the joke” joke fall flat because it needs to go all the way around to unfunny-ception.  This thing was as hilarious as a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Ever been around a hot chick that thinks she should be a stand-up comic because thirsty guys laugh at every jokes she makes?  Yeah.

Worst of all, this happens once again largely because everyone involved treats the material with a utter contempt.  They feel like they are marking time until they can get a real job at a real company.  Nothing matters, graphic kills happen regularly to name characters you know will be revived at the end of the issue because ain’t no way Punisher is getting killed by some random demon villain of the week.

My five year old thought the squirrel was funny, though.  Not squirrel girl.  The actual squirrel.  Congratulations, sophisticated Deadpool writer, you’re writing humor for the PJ Masks set.

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Zero Jumper: A Meta-Review

Yesterday I told you about Alterna Comic’s Zero Jumper.  In the interests of showing Peter Simeti, the big hearted entrepreneur behind Alterna, an open and honest appraisal of the comic, I waited until today to discuss the broader cultural issues that surround this particular company.  Mr. Simeti is a “comics first, fans first, fun first” kind of guy who gets quite enough of the political drama from the left.  We’ll let him enjoy yesterday and not drag him into our own sojourn into the meta-issues in a separate, and thus more easily ignored, post.

The larger question it raised in my mind was, “This is the guy the SJW Comic Gestapo went after? Really?”

Zero Jumper wasn’t written for me.  It’s a very female-centered story, and I’m a pretty manly dude, you know?  Hence my confusion about why Alterna drew the ire of the SJW’s All Seeing Brown Eye of Doom.

Just gorgeous with a bit of a hard edge that

In short, this is exactly the kind of comics the SJWs that have taken over mainstream comics think they are producing – excellent and good looking stories written from a female-centric point of view that everyone can enjoy.  It’s what the mainstream comic companies should be striving to produce.  Badass chiquitas whut don’t need no man, and tween girls capable of (plausibly, thanks to that supersuit) beating up galaxy conquering aliens.

But then, Alterna refused to bend the knee and disavow mer nerzis, so it gets thrown up against the wall alongside admitted crimethinkers such as yours truly.  Which demonstrates that the real goal of the SJWs has nothing to do with high-minded ideals – misguided though they be – nor even a pursuit of inclusion or fighting toxic masculinity the Narrative.  Those are all just social weapons used to achieve their real goal.

Power.

It’s all about control.  They wanted to control Alterna, to show Peter Simeti who was really boss around these comic parts.  He could offer up the Danegeld of joining their alliance as a junior member in their crusade against the Old Guard, or he could be ostracized and his name stricken from the rolls of goodthinkers and forever banished to the dark realms.  The fact most of the stories in Alterna’s back library actually align with the stated goals of the SJWs means nothing.  It’s not about the stories.  It’s about control.

What they didn’t count on was that we are onto them.  They have banished so many crimethinkers that the dark realms are alight with the fires of banished creatives crafting works of art the likes of which they can only dream of.  The crimethinkers, and even moderates who wouldn’t dare throw their lot in with a dirty MAGAbro like yours truly, rallied to his defense and gave him the best month of sales he’s ever seen.

And even if Zero Jumper wasn’t my cup of tea, I can recognize the value and entertainment it might bring to a different sort of comic reader.  Better yet, I can enjoy the story for what it is, content with the knowledge that its creator doesn’t really care what I believe.  He isn’t trying to convert me to anything, and he isn’t trying to remake something I love into something it was never meant to be.  He’s a good guy telling good stories, and as one of the few doing so today, he has earned my support and good will.

And besides, my daughter enjoyed Zero Jumper where she immediately turned up her nose at more mainstream fare like Squirrel Girl.  If this was all about “owning the libs” my purchase would have been a one-shot deal, but Simeti brings the heat, so I’ll keep coming back for more.

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Zero Jumper: A Comic Review

Patrick Mulholland and Peter Simeti bring this four issue sci-fi adventure to us by way of the usual $1.50 newsprint titles, which I love, smudged fingerprints and all, or via  trade paperback.

I’ve read it, and it’s okay.  I’m really not the target audience.

The story is suitably epic, though the galaxy feels surprisingly empty.  We see glimpses of denizens of various planets and towns and villages, but very few actual people.  Rather than fight her way to success, Juno slips through empty landscape after empty landscape, which gives the comic an oppressive feeling similar to what one feels when reading Jack Vance novels.

That’s all I can say without spoilers.

Juno (pic related) represents the last living human being in the universe.  Protected by a supersuit, guided by a powerful AI, and hunted by the ruler of the galaxy, she can leap back in time, hence the name of the comic, a few moments to correct the past.  Maybe, if she can avoid the Scion of the ruler long enough and secure enough MacGuffin crystals to make one big jump, she can go back in time and prevent the earth from being blown up in the first place.  The art is gorgeous, the colors vibrant despite the medium, and the action swift and easily followed.  As has been my experience to date, the comic shines brightest when it focuses on the characters and their relationships.  Juno’s struggle to honor her mother’s wishes while charting her own course are the heart of Zero Jumper, to its credit.

For my tastes, the focus on the mother-daughter relationship and the empty landscapes and limited cast resulted in a story with fairly low stakes.  That shouldn’t be the case when one panel shows the earth blown to smithereens a la Thundarr The Barbarian’s moon.  The bad guy’s evil is all shown off-screen, making him largely a shadow with little menace, particularly given how easily he gets clowned by Juno, her super-science Mom, and a rebel with a heart of gold smuggler/bounty hunter.

The focus on an all-female hero team drained a lot of the drama out of the title for me as well.  Even powered by a super-suit, there’s something empty about a panel showing a tween girl facing off against a towering dark lord.  We’ve been exposed to too many stories over the last few decades to have any doubt about the outcome.  Not only will our plucky heroine win through, it will look easy, and will occur without complications.  We know this.  It’s no surprise, and it sucks a lot of the tension out of the narrative.

If you have a tween girl you’re looking to get into comic books, she might be surprised, and she probably represents the target audience for this title.  This jaded Gen-X cynic found the art and relationship fun enough to stick with the story through the bland lifelessness of that aspect of the story, but its worth noting that of all the Alterna titles I’ve read to my five year old daughter, this was the one she appreciated the least.

And that includes some of the odd-ball stories in the sci-fi anthology If.

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