It Ain’t Shakespeare, but It’s Definitely Suicide Squad

SUICIDE SQUAD

Maybe I was just seduced by the tantalizing marketing, but up until very recently, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad marked the first time I was genuinely excited about an upcoming DC/Warner Bros. property since at least The Dark Knight. Critical response, and feeling pretty burned by Green Lantern  and The Dark Knight Rises, was enough to keep me from experiencing Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Suckness in theaters, and watching them later on home video did neither film any favors. If the BvS director’s cut was really the more coherent version of that story, I can’t imagine the mess laid at the feet of those of you who did deign to watch it on the big screen. Not only was that movie all over the place, tonally and plotwise, but the behavior of its so-called “heroes” made the impending “get ready to root for the bad guys” aspect of Suicide Squad seem almost redundant.

But it’s exactly that Dirty Dozen with Supervillains concept that had me hooked early in regards to the Squad. After all, as my own book The Villain’s Sidekick and its sequels ought to prove, I’m a sucker for a supervillain redemption story. Full disclosure:  I never read John Ostrander’s seminal ’80s run and in fact only really got drawn in to the book by Ales Kot’s brief sojourn with the team from a few years back. In many ways, though, it’s that version of the team that is reflected in the movie version, so between that, the intriguing portrayal of Task Force X on a few episodes of Arrow’s high-point second season, and the animated Assault on Arkham (far and away my favorite of the DC animated films so far, and unlike Ayer’s film, deserving of a strong R rating), I felt pretty primed for the big-screen adaptation.

I was able to ignore the more irritating details of Jared Leto’s fratboy-on-crack on-and-off-set behavior, the stories of panicky post-Deadpool/BvS reshoots and other potential red flags coming out of the geek press and just focus on the stellar trailers (hoping as usual that all the best gags and plot points weren’t being revealed with every teaser and TV spot). But then the reviews started to roll in and it felt like BvS all over again. “Cool your jets, fanboys,” those reviews seemed to say, “not only is Suicide Squad not all that, it’s pretty much a digital shit-show.” I had the sinking feeling I’d only ever watch it half-distracted in a late-night on-demand viewing.

Well, praise be to the God of Managed Expectations, because I went ahead and took the plunge with a couple of ten-year-olds in tow, and much to my surprise, the movie that unfolded in front of me was almost exactly what I’d hoped for/expected when I first saw those high-energy trailers. It’s mostly a light-hearted, fleet-footed action-comedy romp with terrific performances, particularly from the luminous Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and a let’s-have-fun-again Will Smith as Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton. I also thoroughly enjoyed what the underserved Jai Courtney, who I usually find quite bland, brought to Captain Boomerang (who would guess that he’s a better actor when he’s allowed to play a born Australian?), and likewise Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s very earthy Cajun take on Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones, whose brown velour pimp hoodie may be my favorite costume detail in the whole movie. Critics and more than a few fans have complained about the extended “intro” sequences for most of the core characters, but I found that this first act moved with the rhythm and style of a comic book, embracing that energy in a very similar manner to the much-loved Deadpool. 

A major complaint about this film, much like Bvs, has been its purported incoherence, but I found it to be pretty streamlined, easy to follow (maybe even a bit simplistic) and moved from A to Z without a lot of unnecessary filler. Was character development sacrificed here and there to keep the story bulldozing ahead? No doubt. I would have loved to know a little more about Croc’s inner life, and the significance of Boomerang’s stuffed unicorn. Did the Joker sequences detract from the main story to a degree that rendered them all-but-superfluous? Abso-freakin’-lutely. It didn’t help that Leto’s performance was so hammy that he left the scenery sticky with his saliva; he ‘s earned his seat at the horshoe-shaped table in a Legion of Doomed Characterization alongside Jesse Eisenberg’s equally ridiculous take on Luthor. Was the hypersexualized male-gaze nature of Harley’s portrayal problematic? A case could most certainly be made, but I still enjoyed everything from Robbie’s off-kilter line deliveries to the way she frequently allowed the broken woman to peek out from behind the stream of sassy banter. (SPOILER AHEAD) Could they have given Slipknot maybe one more thing to do than just die without making an impression? Yes, dammit. I’m not some gigantic Adam Beach fan or anything, and I don’t even know who Slipknot is, but the poor guy deserves better than what he got.

Probably the most disappointing aspect from a story perspective is that, much like so many of these comic book movies, the Big Bad is a bit of an underwritten disappointment, though the connection between Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) at least gave his subplot some emotional momentum. And yes, the fact that our anti-heroes have to save the world from a big cross-dimensional laser-pointer aimed at the sky was an unkind reminder of The Avengers’ third-act problems, but again, that’s a frequently committed sin, and the short-sightedness of rarely allowing these films to have even slightly smaller-scale problems. Part of what worked so well for me in Civil War was that the final confrontation came down to three guys in a room tearing each other apart because one wounded man wanted to make it happen. But in the end, the Squad’s final confrontation wasn’t any more preposterous than the climax of Hellboy II, and I’ll watch the hell out of that movie just about any time.

I’m not saying rush out and see it, because I don’t want to shoulder the blame if you hate it as much as so many others seem to, but for my money, I got my Dirty Dozen with Supervillains, and in the end, the Squad proved to be much less reluctant, much less disturbing, and significantly more entertaining heroes than those cape-clad mopes in that other big DC release.

The Best of Marvel Lives in the Margins

-SpiderWoman-cover

First off, apologies to all three of my regular readers (okay, I’m probably inflating those numbers) for the inexcusably long break between blog posts. I’d like to say that life gets in the way most days, but the fact is, so does laziness. Yes, I’ve been churning out new fiction at a rate unheard of since the days when I did meth on the regular, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to find an hour a week, at the very least, to punch some keys and paste something here to justify maintaining a blog in the first place. I could make promises and claims to do better going forward, but I’ve done that before and much like all the times when I’d say I was going to quit smoking and then smoke twice as much in defiance of my own better angels, I’d probably just double down on the apathy and take a whole year off from here.

And it’s not like I don’t find inspiration everywhere, from stuff I’m reading to things I’m watching to the eternal tectonic shifts of dark reality, but every now and again I find a reason and a minute and all the stars line up and BAM, you guys get another blog post. You lucky fucks!

The unlikely source of today’s inspired ramblings is a comic book character I’ve rarely thought twice about, except whenever Comixology puts some of her books on sale and I see a writer’s or artist’s name attached that piques my interest. I’m talking, of course, about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Woman. I don’t know much about her historically as a character, except that she exists as the result of Hydra genetic experiments and not because she was standing at the back of the class and got bitten by the same radioactive spider as Peter Parker later that same day (there’s a whole other recently introduced character, Silk, with that origin, because comics!). I imagine she exists as a result of the same possibly craven motivation that’s given the world Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, She-Hulk, and various other gender-swapped variations on wildly popular superheroes. I don’t know if that impulse involves a desire to recruit more female readers and thinking that’s the best way, or if comics creators just wanted to craft versions of their power-fantasy figures they could daydream about having sex with after a super-battle (“That Spider-Man sure is dreamy–golly, if only he was a girl! Hey…!”).

Whatever their inauspicious origins, once these characters prove to have some lasting appeal, they inevitably fall into the hands of writers and artists who genuinely find them interesting, or at least seize the opportunity to do interesting things with characters who are perceived to be “second-tier.” That’s how you get books like J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s incredible “Batwoman” run, Babs Tarr and Cameron Stewart’s recent bestelling “Batgirl” revamp, “She-Hulk” in the hands of Dan Slott or Charles Soule, and now, Dennis Hopeless‘s excellent take on Spider-Woman.

spider-woman-5

Hopeless is a writer I’m not particularly familiar with, so if anything made me snap up digital copies of these books, it was Javier Rodriguez’s glorious artwork, which strikes the perfect balance of cartoony without going too broadly comical, realistic without belaboring the details, and enhanced with Alvaro Lopez’s fine-lined inking and Muntsa Vicente’s bright poppy colors. What that told me at a glance was that this book was going to be fun, embracing the inherently over-the-top silliness which is the only sane way for a grown-ass adult to approach and engage with a superheroic universe. The borderline indie-comic spirit put me instantly in mind of Fraction’s “Hawkeye,” the current “Ms. Marvel” and my much-loved “Superior Foes of Spider-Man,” all books that bring a kind of cable-series vibe and a much-deserved spotlight to some of the outliers of the Marvel Multiverse.

What I love about those other books, and indeed what I usually look for in a superhero book these days, is the way they engage with this preposterous reality from a fresh perspective, sneaking humor, humanity and even heart into the dialogue and character interactions, creating small relatable details that don’t interfere when the action gets big; in fact, they enhance it. I love stories that dig into unexplored nooks and crannies of the superpowered world, like who a D-list henchmen hangs out with in his downtime, or what an Avenger watches on cable on her nights off, or the consequences of sneaking out past your bedtime when you’re a hero who still lives with your parents. I also love to see an industry titan like Marvel upgrading its characters so that the “world outside your door” at least starts to look somewhat like the world outside mine. Making the new Ms. Marvel a Pakistani Muslim immigrant was an excellent step in that direction. Giving Jessica Drew a new costume that looks like something she picked out for herself, rather than had painted on against her will, is another. For a character that’s always been presented as a powerful, if conflicted, woman, she’s spent too many years in an outfit that rendered her a hypersexualized male fantasy figure rather than a legitimately self-empowered individual.

I’m not saying I hate this, because my Neanderthal lizard brain most certainly responds to it…

Sex-woman

…but this is way more practical, a whole lot cooler, and while I can’t necessarily picture my wife in it, I could at least imagine running into her somewhere…

SpiderladyContinuing this streak of real-world feminism and self-propelled sisterhood, Hopeless and Rodriguez craft a terrific story arc in which Jessica, now striking out on her own as a private detective, her time with the Avengers in the rearview mirror (for now), takes a keen interest in the cases of multiple missing women. All of these women–and some children–have one thing in common: they are the wives, girlfriends and significant others of a who’s-who of supervillains, henchmen, and assorted powered goons. Teaming up with the Daily Bugle’s hardest working investigative journalist, Ben Urich, and a third-tier criminal with a bad rep and a big heart with the unfortunate alias Porcupine, Jessica finds her way to an idyllic small town inhabited almost solely by women and children. As it turns out, an enterprising abuse survivor has established a kind of underground railroad for women who’ve been victimized by their good-for-nothing, often psycho costumed spouses and boyfriends, spiriting them away to this rural getaway to live a peaceful life off the abusers’ radars. Unfortunately, the brains behind this operation has become something of a criminal mastermind herself, convincing a number of the crooks that their loved ones are being held hostage and forcing them to pull jobs that will funnel funds and resources to the fledgling community/sanctuary. That’s how Porcupine ends up in Jessica’s orbit, becoming a surprisingly sympathetic ally as Jess attempts to find a solution that will put an end to the criminal activity while preserving the much-needed retreat for these unfortunate women and their offspring.

Needless to say, when I downloaded the first issue in this run, I was not expecting a story of such depth and complexity, where a segment of the expansive Marvelverse becomes a potent metaphor  not only for the victimization and subjugation of women, but of the potential for even long-suffering victims to find the inner strength and resources to stand up and fight back, not with the fists of their oppressors (well, not just the fists anyway) but with solidarity, and smarts. It’s the second time inside of a year that I’ve come across a Marvel story with such a well-crafted contemporary feminist slant, the other being the Netflix version of Spider-Woman’s namesake and fellow superpowered P.I. Jessica JonesIf this is a sign of things to come as Marvel plays catch-up with the world, and caters more carefully and overtly to their many female fans, I can only say we geeks are richer for it. And it leaves me eager to get my hands on the next volume, where this happens…

Spiderpreggers

 

New HandCannon Story; Goodreads Giveaway; Villain’s Sidekick for FREE

from the author of -The villain's sidekick-' (1) copy

Getting sick of seeing this guy yet? I hope not, because as of today, Leap Day 2016, this new Duke story, all about the exploits that led to him becoming the henchman known in certain circles as HandCannon, is available over on Amazon. And in honor of its digital publication, I’m also holding a month-long Goodreads Giveaway where fifteen lucky entrants, hand-selected through some arcane process by the folks behind the scenes at Goodreads, stand to win not only a hardcopy of this story, but of the entire HandCannon catalog. That’s right, you get The Devil’s Right Hand, The Eternity Conundrum, and the original The Villain’s Sidekick from Budget Press, all for the low low price of nothing at all.

The Eternity Conundrum Final Final

And for those of you who hate physical copies of books with all your black little hearts, The Villain’s Sidekick will be free in its e-book form for Kindle readers for the next five days.

So celebrate Leap Day with HandCannon, huh? After all, what could be better than reading about a semi-retired henchmen with a machine gun arm while you’re hunkered down in your bunker waiting out the election cycle?

villain_kindle

The Pre-orders Are Rolling In

Okay, maybe more like trickling. But considering I have only the bare minimum of marketing and self-promotion expertise, it’s exciting to imagine anyone champing at the bit for another taste of HandCannon.

I’m also doing a giveaway promotion on Goodreads starting February 29th, the day of the launch for The Devil’s Right Hand, and running through the end of March. Fifteen lucky winners from wherever they are in the world will get free print copies of the new story plus The Villain’s Sidekick and The Eternity ConundrumThat’s the entire collected works of HandCannon (minus the forthcoming Citizen Skin) for the price of none!

And just ’cause I like it, here’s that book cover again, with the sweet 3D HandCannon image designed by Texas-based artist extraordinaire Jeff Coleman.

from the author of -The villain's sidekick-' (1) copy

 

Pre-order “The Devil’s Right Hand”–the earliest origins of HandCannon

Now available for pre-order (for Kindle only right now–sorry Nook-ers and other e-readin’ types) from Amazon, the latest slim chapter in the HandCannon saga, a bittersweet taste of things to come as our “hero” stumbles sideways into the life of a cybernetically-enhanced henchman. Like “Batman Begins,” this is “HandCannon Before” (but don’t worry, it’s got nothing in common with “Gotham”). Before the gun-arm, before the steel jaw, but after the friendly fire Gulf War incident that left him wide open for prosthetics and a terrible attitude. Opens wide on February 29th, and makes a great Leap Day gift for that special someone you only think about every four years.

The print edition from Budget Press should be available soon, too!

from the author of -The villain's sidekick-' (1) copy

Duke LaRue is a Gulf War vet who lost his right arm, his right mind, part of his skull and more than a few of his marbles in a friendly fire incident. Now he’s a lost soul hovering around the Texas/Mexico border pulling petty crimes, hooking up with tourists, and trying his best not to wake up in jail EVERY morning. But a chance encounter with the heiress to a cartel fortune and her would-be killers on a midnight beach turns out to be the first stumbling step towards his future as a cybernetic weaponized henchman-for-hire. Because even the bad guys have to start somewhere.

Another One in the Can

Update: It being my birthday and all, I figured it’s only right to announce that The Devil’s Right Hand will release on February 29th, just in time for Leap Day. Makes a great gift for that special someone you only think about once every four years…

Available for pre-order right here.

from the author of -The villain's sidekick-' (1) copy

Just over two weeks ago, I typed the final words of the first draft of Citizen Skin, my long-gestating sequel to The Villain’s SidekickNow the hard work lies ahead, of doing a major revision, then recruiting a few beta readers, then polishing the hell out of it, then having an editor fine-tooth comb it, many steps I was confident enough to skip when I threw Villain’s into the world. But that book was less than a third of the length, had a much simpler, more streamlined plot, and poured out of me in a very short time. Citizen I’ve been hammering away at almost since I first finished that one, and it’s a monster by comparison.

Still, in the interim, I did manage to churn out The Eternity Conundrumwhich like Villain’s was born after a quick, mostly painless delivery and a very short period of labor (yeah, I’m running with the pregnancy metaphors, as if there’s any real comparison). It hasn’t been quite as widely read or well-received as my first, but it serves its purpose and I still stand by it as something I’m proud to have made, even if it maybe could’ve used a little more time in the oven. Not that it’s half-baked, just a tad undercooked. And now I’ve got another one of those, a short story, even leaner than Conundrum, that explores Duke’s HandCannon origins, how a war-wounded veteran turned petty criminal found himself swept up in the world of supercrime and metahuman villainy. It’s called The Devil’s Right Hand (at least for now) because I was listening to the Steve Earle song of the same name (“mama says a pistol is the devil’s right hand”) and it was so literally perfect to describe a guy who’s right arm is a machine gun. Of course, in this story he doesn’t even have that bit of his identity yet, but you can get a good glimpse of where his life is headed. Also, without spoiling anything, I will say that this little tale contains possibly my favorite of all the ridiculous superpowered characters I’ve come up with in the HandCannon Universe.

This is an early announcement, as I literally just finished the first draft of the story a few hours ago, so I still have to do my own revisions, let a beta reader or two opine on the story, and then get it as polished as I feel like getting it in time for my publisher, Budget Press, to have it on the table for the L.A. Zinefest in early March. But it’s been such a goddamn productive few weeks on the writing front, I just felt like I needed to share. Plus I knocked out a nifty cover that doesn’t  exactly match the uniform aesthetic I would love all the books to have, but for a guy with absolutely zero graphics skills, I don’t hate it as a placeholder.

Anyway, more news as it comes along in the next week or so, but for now I just wanted to whet your appetites.

The first taste is free:

“Load up on guns, bring your friends…”

                                                                                    Nirvana  “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

El Paso, Texas, November 1991 

Everyone’s got an origin story, but not all of ‘em are created equal. I mean, on one end of the spectrum there’s you, right? Just some regular schlub trying to get through your life and not die before you’re ready—good luck with that, by the way—and on the other end there’s the lone survivor of some vastly superior but still inexplicably humanoid alien race who shows up on our planet and gets to live out his days playing messiah to every hapless fuckwit too useless to rescue their own damn selves. How relatable is that? In between you’ve got your obsessive, vengeance-minded billionaire geniuses, one-percenters who think they know what’s best for humanity and have the toys and means to force their worldview on the rest of us. And then there’s the angry narcissists, despotic freaks deformed by rotten luck or raw nature acting out egomaniacal agendas; a lot of these guys and gals have their own secret bases, their own armies, even their own countries sometimes, full of slack-jawed goose-steppers that willingly follow these id monsters in spite of the fact that they’re usually just cannon fodder or targets for misdirected rage. And that’s not even covering your ordinary Joes with deep personal flaws and devil-may-care life approaches who stumble into industrial accidents or come across ancient talismanic objects that grant them amazing powers and turn them into low-level deities for good or ill.

And then, somewhere below all of them, luckier than a lot of you Jane Does and Joe Six-Packs but unluckier than most, there’s folks like me. Criminal chumps on a downhill slide to the Big Nothing before getting unexpectedly called up to the majors, coasting for awhile on the same thrill that athletes, actors, musicians and politicians must get when their star first starts to rise.

***

I wake up to the sound of snoring—deep, loud, and disconcertingly male—and after a few foggy moments I start to piece together where I am. The hard thin mattress barely protecting me from the metal struts of a cot screwed tight to a cinderblock wall. The overwhelming stench of piss, vomit and despair. The reverberating clang of metal on metal and the murmur of discontented voices.

Jail.

Of course.

Where I else would I be after a string of days and nights spent and wasted on border-hopping bar-crawling culminating in an epic-length blackout? The final hours of my latest self-annihilating binge reduced from a hi-def videostream of crystal memory to a series of time-lapsed Polaroids, like the film ran out of budget and the third reel consists of nothing but storyboards and snapshots of scouted locations. My next question: what side of the border was I on when they rounded me up? I dimly recall an El Paso drowning hole called La Boca del Leon, a couple of mouthy shitkickers who didn’t understand how I could shoot pool so good with just the one functioning arm, and the kind of all-hands-on-deck bar fight you assume only ever happened on a Hollywood soundstage in the heyday of the Western. I get my answer only when my head clears enough so that I can suss out from the nearby voices of jailbirds and law enforcers that most everyone seems to be speaking Texas-accented Americanese.

I try to sit up and literally everything hurts, from my alcohol-drenched brainpan to my war-wounded arm stump. My insides roil and heave with an admixture of every kind of booze, most types of pills and an unhealthy gut-bomb of grease-sealed Tex-Mex. The rust-crusted, shit-stained steel toilet seems impossibly far away, even in this 6×8 cell, so I just roll over and aim for the floor as my body rejects a platter-sized splatter of semi-digested flotsam from deep in my innards. I expel so much I’m pretty sure I’m puking stuff I haven’t eaten in years, like baby food, or even in this lifetime, like primordial soup. It’s only when I go to brace myself to keep from tumbling off the cot that I realize my prosthetic arm is missing.

The queasier among you will not want to hear this next part, so, yeah, spoiler alert: I go face first into my own belly stew and split my chin on the cold cement floor beneath it, which at least does me the favor of giving me an entirely fresh shock of pain to focus on.

“You mind keeping it down over there, pal? I need my beauty sleep before I bust outta here.”

It takes a few to realize that A) the snoring has stopped and 2) that rumbly voice, more amused than threatening, must be coming from my cellmate.

“Yeah, well, pardon me,” is the best I can muster, about 30% sincere and the rest however-much-amount sarcastic.

“S’matter?” my celly asks, and as he sits up and lets the thin scrap of what’s meant to pass for a blanket fall away, I realize he’s at least as big as I am. And at seven feet plus and close to 300 pounds of mostly muscle, I am nobody’s idea of small. “Bed wasn’t cold or hard or vomity enough? Decided you’d be more comfy in a warm puddle of your own sick?”

He’s a black guy, the kind where you actually get why they call ‘em black, with skin the shade and sheen of a well-worn leather biker jacket. 400 pounds easy, with shoulders practically as wide across as the front grill of a ’65 Lincoln Continental. Even just sitting there, in boxers and a wifebeater, I know he’s ex-military, although I can imagine the NFL champing at the bit just to place him on field in the defensive line like an immovable human wall.

“Kelvin Watts,” he tells me, even though I haven’t asked. “Friends call me Battery.”

“Cause you’re so powerful?” I hazard. “Or as in ‘Assault and…’?”

“Pretty much every reason you could think of,” he says, smiling wider than he already was.

“Duke LaRue.”

“I’d shake your hand but…” He indicates the mess I’m still extricating myself from, then tosses me his blanket scrap so I can start toweling off.

“What you get popped for, Kelvin?”

“Same as you, I’m guessin.’ Makin’ more trouble than a man my age oughta be.” He glances, then gestures, at my arm stump. “When’d you get back?”

“What’s it been? Six months I guess. You?”

“Shit, I’m not sure I am back. But about a year, if you go by the Gregorian calendar. How’d it happen?” He taps his elbow to indicate he’s referring to my stump. Guess that’s more of a conversation piece than the facial scars and glass eye.

“Chopper went down.”

Kelvin nods, then, “Friendly fire?”

Helluva guess. “How’d you know?”

“Lotta that in Desert Storm. Plus, the ones it happens to tend to be more pissed off than the ones who came about their wounds the so-called ‘honorable’ way.”

“I seem particularly pissed off to you?”

“You were when you got here. They musta worn out five TASERs puttin’ you at your ease.”

“Since when do El Paso cops have TASERs?”

“It’s the ‘90s, baby. Brave new world. So, how you earnin’ your beer money these days?”

“Sympathy, mostly,” I say, waggling my stump for emphasis. “And when that runs out, cheating. At cards, at pool, with rich guys’ wives. Supplemented with the occasional strong-arm robbery.”

“I see.” He gives me a long once-over, his expression turning 100% serious for the first time since we met. “You affiliated?”

“What…like…am I in a gang?”

Kelvin comes back with a noncommittal shrug.

“Yeah, sure, I’m an honorary Crip. But only because I don’t look good in red. I hope you ain’t a Blood. Nothin’ personal if you are.”

If he grins any wider, the top half of his head might come off.

“I’m not really talkin’ street gangs. I mean, once you been to the other side of the world, that shit starts to seem kinda pedestrian, doncha think?”

My turn to shrug.

Kelvin stands up and finds the county-issued orange jumpsuit folded neatly under his bunk, starts forcing himself into it like ground pork into a sausage casing.

“Well listen, friend. It’s been real nice chattin’ with you and all, but I got places to do, things to be, people to kill. You know the drill. So if you’ll excuse my abruptivity and forgive my shortage of social graces…”

With that, Kelvin “Battery” Watts gives me my first-ever up close and personal demonstration of what it means to have superpowers. Quicker and more graceful than I woulda thought possible, he heaves his enormity up off his cot and unscrews the lone bare light bulb that hangs in the middle of our cell. With nary more than a jovial wink in my direction, he jams two thick fingers into the empty socket, making contact with the live exposed wires inside, a shower of sparks cascading down over him like little electric snowflakes and his eyes glowing yellow, maybe just from the reflected electricity though it seems more like the light’s coming from inside his head. The lights flicker and dim in the corridor and the other cells and the ongoing murmur of voices shifts suddenly to a louder chorus of mild alarm. Without removing his fingers, and reacting to the surge of power coursing through him with a kind of ecstatic shiver, Battery reaches over with his free hand and pounds the cinderblocks once, twice, three times until the back wall crumbles to small chunks and pulverized dust and Texas morning sunlight streams into our tiny shared space.

“You’re welcome to join me, of course.”

The frenzied sounds of human confusion are already swelling in intensity as a gaggle of guards clomps down the corridor outside our cell, and as tempting as the daylight looks, I think maybe I don’t have it in me to move far or fast enough to outrun these chumps and making a break for it would just be turning a pretty minor misdemeanor into something I might not be legally or emotionally ready to handle. Plus, I’m in my skivvies and they’re holding my other arm.

“Not today, man,” I say, settling back onto my cot.

“In that case, I appreciate you not trying to score brownie points by shouting for the uniforms. If you ever get south of the border, look me up. We could have us some fun. Maybe even turn a dime for it.” And with that, he steps through the hole and disappears into the El Paso morning.

“I’ll do that,” I say, knowing full well that I won’t, and that I’ll never again lay my good eye on Kelvin “Battery” Watts.

Funny thing about certainty though: in this life, it’s not really so much a thing.

 

 

 

 

Space Oddities, Supercreeps & Spiders From Mars

or: Everything I Know About Science Fiction Worldbuilding I Learned From David Bowiedavid-bowie

Words, even Bowie’s own strange elliptical cryptic lyrical vocabulary, will never be sufficient to describe or define the shock and loss I felt when I woke up to learn that he was gone. As so many others have said so much more eloquently, I thought you had to be human to be mortal. And more importantly, I thought that David Bowie would always be around because in my world, he always had been. Of course, not only by virtue of being born terminal but in every crucial way that counts, the man born David Jones was as human as they come. It’s just that he realized from an early age that being human also meant that we all carried a little alien DNA inside.

I admit that when I was a young suburban Texas kid seeing him for the first time singing alongside Bing Crosby on a televised Christmas special, he was a mystery to me, an out-of-place ethereal character in this old-fashioned setting, where even Bing asked him about his holiday rituals back home as if he were an off-world visitor. And a few years later, when I caught his insanely inspired performances on Saturday Night Live, with the puppet bodies and the architectural cross-dressing, singing songs about transgendered folk heroes and carnivorous TV sets, I’ll confess that my tiny young mind was a little bit afraid of the guy.

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But a few years later, now a high school student just beginning to explore the significance of being a left-leaning, freak-admiring outsider in a world of preppies, rednecks, jocks and homecoming queens, I was more than ready when my friend Jim “Seamus” Moran turned me and my friends onto the exquisitely weird musical wonders of this boundary-pushing, genre-straddling, soul-weird superstar in the years just prior to the release of “Let’s Dance.” Sure, I knew “Changes” was a great pop song and thanks to Pink Floyd I had a rough idea of what a “concept album” was, but even the brilliant navel-gazing of The Wall couldn’t prepare me for the science fiction drenched plunge into the fully realized worlds of Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke.

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Ziggy lit my inspirational fuse from the cover image on down, opening with his blearily apocalyptic promise that the world he was living in, maybe one dimension over from our own, had just five years left to exist, and everyone on the planet had to figure out how to wrestle with that knowledge. Ziggy wouldn’t be the last time Bowie played around with the image of an alien savior quite possibly too pure for this Earth, but it would be the only time he’d really lay it out in a series of interrelated songs that were brilliantly accessible pop rock while also serving as lovingly sketched micro-short stories about a fantastic and tragic reality he seemed to be perceiving within the confines of our much more mundane one.

Around the time we were assigned to read Orwell’s bleak, despairing, joyless “1984” (in the actual year 1984 no less), I had my limited edition picture disc of “Diamond Dogs” in frequent rotation on my cheap plastic turntable. Knowing that the songs had evolved from a planned stage musical adaptation of the book, I marveled at the way he exploded my notions of dystopia with characters, settings and ideas that had more dimensions in a few lines than Orwell’s characters gained over 200-plus pages. Could the glittering Diamond Dogs even co-exist alongside the gray-faced Winston Smiths of Oceania? While Winston sat in his drab flat drinking Victory gin or stood with his co-workers for the Two-Minutes Hate, could an eye-patched punk pirate really be sliding down a rope like some swaggering vigilante from his penthouse squat atop the Chase Manhattan building?

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I sure wanted to think so. The songs became the soundtrack for the drug-fueled story ideas my friends and I concocted on long stoned wandering nights in a world that was as drab as Orwell’s even if the lawns were lush and green. They were an escape into fantasy as fully realized and satisfying as Planet of the Apes or Star Wars had been a few years earlier. More so, because there was so much left to the imagination, and ours were literally exploding with ideas. Listening to Bowie was like experiencing cyberpunk before the subgenre even existed. We wanted to take that cross-country journey with Aladdin Sane and meet a man who “looked a lot like Che Guevara” in a burned-out war-torn Detroit. We wanted to head to an anarchic New York or London to see Ziggy play live, then flee in terror across Northern Europe from the ever-looming threat of the Thin White Duke, always just one train car behind us.

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So as much as I’ve ever been moved by Bob Dylan’s next-wave hobo troubadour stylings, or Tom Waits ragged vagabond Americana, or the Rolling Stones distillation of rock star excess, no musician, no songwriter, and few other artists in general, have ever had quite so much influence on what I write, why I write it, and how it feels-and sounds-in my head when I’m trying to squeeze it out, as David Bowie.

I’m not the first one to say it, and it’s just a weak paraphrase of a quote we all read on the day, but if David Bowie wasn’t strange enough to somehow exist forever, at least he was here at all. For that I will always be grateful.