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?

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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.

https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/david-bowie-tvc15/2969207

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.

 

Rednecks & Pigskin

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Growing up Texan, I’m pretty sure I was meant to be a football fan. My father is, my sister is, my brother was. Legendary Dallas Cowboys QB Roger Staubach attended the same church as my family when I was a kid. My neice is married to the son of another legendary NFL-er who played for my home team, the long-gone Houston Oilers.

But for whatever reason, the football bug never bit. In fact, between my own little league baseball and soccer experiences, which left a bad taste in my mouth for the spirit of competition, and a general interest in geekier pursuits, I’ve never cared for sports at all. Except, of course, in the realm of fiction. From the foul-mouthed kids of the original “Bad News Bears” to the debauched troubled souls of “North Dallas Forty” to the soft-hearted lug of “Rocky” I could always relate to the underdog/outsider metaphor of one team, or individual, fighting long odds just to survive, much less win.

Amidst the “Breaking Bads” and “Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” and somewhat overshadowed by them, I’m of the opinion that “Friday Night Lights” is one of the greatest TV dramas in history, its depiction of a small Texas town that lives and dies by the success of its high school football team providing a backdrop for stories about marginalized human beings, righteousness and wrongheadedness, and one of the most dead-honest portrayals of a healthy happy but sometimes bumpy marriage since, I dunno, Dan and Roseanne, I guess. It’s much more of an optimistic, feel-good show than those I just mentioned above, but it comes about that optimism honestly, and with genuine respect for its small-town Southern characters and their humanity. In other words, it’s not “Seventh Heaven,” or “Coach” or even “The White Shadow.”

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“Southern Bastards,” Jasons Aaron & Latour’s epic graphic ongoing is about a small town just as mired in its obsession with the ritual significance of what happens on that high school football field week in and week out, but very much the anti-“Friday Night Lights” in every conceivable way. If Coach Eric Taylor was a kind of patron saint of tough love mentorship, “Bastards” Coach Euless Boss is the devil incarnate. Here’s a man who’s clawed his way up from an abject life to a position of power and authority that he not only realizes to its fullest extent, but will never let go of as long as there’s life left in him. If his surname’s not already a clue, Euless functions not only as the head coach of the Runnin’ Rebs, but as the town mob boss as well, maintaining a tight-fisted reign over his ruthless, toothless goons, most of whom seem to be former students who’ve gone on to something less than glory off the field.

Coach Boss’ mandated order of things is challenged when Earl Tubb, aging son of the town’s long-gone legendary sheriff, returns home to settle some family business. The two crusty sons-of-bitches run afoul of each other pretty quick, especially once Earl picks up the old family war club off the mantle and starts beating the hell out of Boss’ thugs. However, as much as “Southern Bastards” ain’t “Friday Night Lights,” it ain’t “Walking Tall” either, and things don’t turn out quite the way we’ve been led to expect from a century of cowboy movies.

The genius of the storytelling–and really, this is the mark of a lot of great storytelling, especially in the Age of the Anti-hero–is that the Jasons create a thoroughly loathsome villain in Volume 1, then sucker-punch you with a sympathetic tale of Euless’ origins in Volume 2, forcing you to understand him a little, even if he is a man most likely beyond all hope of redemption. Watching him fight against all odds to impress his own less-than-worthless father and get some sense of familial respect (love’s too much to ask for ’round these parts), becoming a football player with no natural talent through sheer force of will, you see the bumps, bruises, and breaks that formed the literal and metaphorical scar tissue that’s made his hide so dense.

Volume 3 switches gears again and spins a series of single-issue tales about the various townspeople, from the black ex-football star sheriff who’s been looking the other way for too long to the proselytizing super-Christian who believes any soul is worthy and capable of saving to the sociopathic redneck who happily, viciously proves him wrong.

Since the end of the first story arc, Aaron and Latour have been teasing the arrival of Earl Tubb’s Middle East-war vet daughter, who promises to be the fuse that ignites the powder keg of small town insanity, bigotry, rage and vengeance at the core of Euless Boss, his town, and this incredible story.