Does anyone else get the feeling that the complete collapse of civilization is going to be really good for the planet?
Like when a guy my age has his first heart attack—it’s a wake-up call! You start eating better, exercising, get your sex drive back, suddenly you’re in the best shape of your life. Sure, there’s some scar tissue, and you have to take your medication and pay attention to doing things in “cycles”…I mean, whether it’s your personal apocalypse or a global one, I guarantee you will start riding a bike again!
I mean seriously, I feel like there’s little hints that some kind of mini-geddon is coming. Everyone’s talking about how it’s better to eat food that’s locally sourced, that we should all be growing our own vegetables and brewing our own kombucha and cultivating our own weed and 3D printing our own protein substitutes. I am not good at any of that shit, so I’m starting to apocalypse network. Where you meet someone at the farmer’s market who grows their own strawberries and bottles their own chai and makes their own vegan cheese out of cashews and dustbunnies and you’re like “Can I get your number? Are you on Instagram?” Though what we really should be doing is asking, what’s your physical address and how can I make it to your place on foot when the shit goes down?
I’m an atheist, but I like to get high, so I’m still on an eternal quest for meaning. Like I see patterns and apply significance to the tiniest shit to make myself feel better about my preposterous life choices. “If I hadn’t gone to Burning Man that one time in ‘96 I would have never considered the possibility that I could survive the end of civilization!” (not the right punchline but a fine placeholder)
I’m at that age where I’m not sure if I’m in the best shape of my life, or the worst health I’ve ever been in. Like either I’ve got everything pretty much locked down and figured out, or it is all about to fall apart tomorrow. I mean, I eat better and exercise more than I ever did back when it would have mattered, but I also do ridiculous things to my mind and body that far fewer adults have grown out of than you would probably like to think.
I’m in my fifties and what nobody tells you about being in your fifties—or probably lots of people do in books I just haven’t bothered to read—is that this is the time in your life when you start adding up your balance sheet. I don’t mean literally; my finances remain precariously on the precipice of one-serious-medical-event-we’re-done. But it’s when you start trying to figure out if it’d be okay if you were to suddenly die. Like, how does everything stack up for you? What’s the big unresolved shit? Who do you really really really need to apologize to and who can you afford to just say “fuck it!” Because it becomes very tangible past a certain point. People start having those aforementioned “medical events.” Stupid accidents, things attacking you from inside your own body, just scary horror movie bad stuff. And you can no longer pretend it’s impossible or that it’s something that happens to other people you read about or that it isn’t eventually, inevitably, no matter how hard you slice it, coming for us all. So you have to start being ready for it. Making peace with it. Not easy peace, either. More like the kind of peace between rival gangs who know bad ugly shit could go down at any second, and inevitably will, but it’s best for everyone in the meantime to stave it off as long as possible so we can all make some money and get laid a few more times.
Happy May Day, people! In honor of the occasion, why not go and get yourself a copy of The Good Fight 4: Homefront and check out Love Vigilantes, my latest addition to the ongoing saga of Duke “HandCannon” LaRue. This one’s the wild, raucous tale of his whirlwind romance, railgun wedding, domestic disasters, and unfathomable fallout with the love of his life and one-time partner-in-crime Liza Fate. Lots of other great tales of superheroic domesticity between these covers (be they paperback or digital). If you prefer, you can always hold out for a hard copy from me, once I’ve got my order in. Thank you for your continued patronage. Both of you!
Chris Herron at Tall Tale TV has done an audio version of my HandCannon short story, “Last Dance.” Chris himself has a great personal story, having turned on to audiobooks when he was suffering from temporary legal blindness in 2015. He’s since recovered, but launched this project both as a way to give back to folks who can’t experience stories the traditional way, and to give authors like me a promotional boost without having to shell out for the expense of creating an audiobook on our own. I think he’s done a terrific job and his project deserves more eyeballs and earholes, so how about you give this, and other Tall Tale TV stories, a listen?
Back in the 1990s, when I was a flat-dwelling San Francisco Gen X slacktivist too busy falling in futile love with lesbians and smoking speed out of broken lightbulbs to do something as mundane as, ugh, watch TV, there was a live action series inspired by the X-Men comics I’d loved as a kid. Apparently, it looked something like this…
It’s as if they managed to capture the essence of everything questionable, wrong-headed and lame about the decade and distill it into a single syndicated television program. (Hopefully they later jettisoned it into the far reaches of space.) Granted, I also thought I was too cool for comics at the time, but even if I hadn’t been, I doubt I’d have been slavering at the mouth for a weekly taste of whatever this is pictured here to satisfy my cravings for supertainment.
Four years later Bryan Singer’s X-Men would arrive and upend everything about the moribund live action superhero film that the ’90s Bat-franchise had so successfully driven to the edge of its grave.
That’s a massive leap forward in less than half a decade, but it made a promise that the the 2ks would be lot more interesting for mutant-lovers and comics geeks, and it re-inspired my appreciation for those old funnybooks by using the Claremont/Byrne era I read and loved as a touchstone.
But countless superhero franchise flicks later, and after the dull thud of Age of Apocalypse, you might forgive me for summoning images of Generation X‘s ’90s-era awfulness when I heard that FX was going to do a live-action X-Men show based on an obscure character (to me, at least) from the ’80s New Mutants books (I never read those).
Of course, I had a glimmer of interest when I heard that Noah Hawley was going to be the guiding force behind it, not least because I’d had such a similar reaction when I first heard that someone was going to make a TV version of the Coen brothers classic film Fargo. After all, someone had already tried that idea years earlier, too, and it did not meet with what you might call success.
But Hawley somehow managed to nail the language and storytelling rhythms of the Coens so well, I was convinced they had a heavy creative hand in the whole endeavor, only to learn later that beyond their exec producer credits they had next to none.
So I had confidence Hawley would at least do something noteworthy with his little slice of the X-franchise. And the casting of Dan Stevens (so great as a kind of sociopathic Steve Rogers in the underseen thriller gem The Guest ), Aubrey Plaza (an out-of-nowhere sensation from Parks & Recreation who really needed to prove that she could do something more than drip dry slacker sarcasm over any and all proceedings), and Jemaine Clement (who’d already busted out of his Flight of the Conchords comedy-music box by tearing it up as a sexy vampire in What We Do in the Shadows) seemed reasonably intriguing, if not outright inspired. So yeah, I figured I’d give it a look. Maybe Hawley would give me something to look forward to on Wednesday nights since I’d abandoned Arrow. Boy, was I underestimating that mad fuckin’ genius.
The pilot for his Legion announced its intentions pretty much from the first scene, introducing the viewer to a bugfuck puzzlebox where it was hard to tell what year, decade or mental facility we were in, or whether we were ever in reality at all. I had to watch the whole thing twice just to try and decide for myself what was happening in 3D reality and what was going on exclusively in the confines of David Haller’s (Stevens) mind. Happily, as art-rocked as the episode was, there were definitive answers to those questions, and David even expressly asked, “Is this real? This is real, right?” at the appropriate moment. And the response he received was not a narrative cheat, but a direct testament to both character and viewer. Basically Hawley saying, “Yes, we’re fucking with you, but no, we’re not.” After that rewatch, I knew that this pretty, occasionally Lynchian multimedia indulgence, with its spot-on music choices and psychodelicate visuals was actually going to tell me a story, and wasn’t just yanking my chain for the sake of getting away with high weirdness on the TV (though that was a pleasant side effect).
I knew it wouldn’t be a show for everybody, but I knew most of my comics-reading friends would love the shit out of it, and even better, it was one I could happily recommend to certain non-comics friends who were more literate in things like Kubrick, David Lynch, David Bowie, and other things arty, entertaining, offbeat and good.
Much like in Logan, Hawley’s show thrives on solid writing, spinning out character beats and scenes about human connection that almost make you forget you’re watching a sci-fi suspense series based on a comic book. And the mutants they’ve contrived for this corner of the X-verse are unique and metaphorical in ways that tend to serve both story and theme. Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, a full-bodied, full-blooded star in the making forged in the fires of Fargo, and that character name is no accident, Pink Floyd fans) can’t touch anyone lest they switch bodies/identities. So of course she and David have to fall in love. Cary/Kerry Loudermilk (the always-amazing Bill Irwin whose film career stretches back to Robert Altman’s superweird Popeye movie) is a middle-aged man with a kind of parasitic female twin (Amber Midthunder, a lovely young actress with sixteen years of work behind her already and the best surname I’ve ever heard in my life) who can leave his body at will, but generally doesn’t like to, so has aged much slower than him. She’s also kind of a badass. Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris, who can wear the hell out of some clothes) can enter people’s memories, which proves really useful in parsing out what’s going on in David’s brain (the central question being, is he schizophrenic, or a superpowerful mutant that can rewrite the world?). Ptonomy also has an awesome Thompson machine gun.
As much as I’d love to write an episode-by-episode breakdown of why this is the greatest thing to come out of the Farnsworth box and enter the center of my brain like one of Brian O’Blivion’s Videodrome tumors, I know we live in an age where even the most voracious of readers are devolving to have the attention spans of sugar-stimulated gnats, so I’ll try to just brushstroke its greatness in a few more hyperbolic paragraphs of praise.
Back in 2012, X-Men: First Class Screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted:
“My goal in life is to get “Oh! You Pretty Things” into an X-Men movie. I think I’ve got a good shot at succeeding.”
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stayOh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior
BAM! A beautiful cover, an expressionistic montage, a pointed use of this terrific song at an integral moment in the show. And that’s just one of the many examples of Hawley’s brilliant use of music to augment and underscore his high-art pop confection, which honestly has a David Bowie feeling all over it, from production design to wardrobe selection to just a general vibe. But back to the music: Pink Floyd’s “Breathe (In the Air)/On the Run” scores a crucial moment in the season finale, and they are another musical force whose artistic identity infuses the show. As musical acts, Floyd and Bowie didn’t shy from scifi concepts; rather they fully embraced them, and they’ve obviously had a profound influence on Hawley’s approach to the genre, to which I can fully relate. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did something similar in a recent episode with the Moody Blues “Have You Heard?” and it was terrific. Likewise Winter Soldier’s use of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” in its closing montage. I just wish more of these comic book shows and films would engage with deep-cut pop culture in this way (and not the wall-to-hall first-flapjack-off-the-griddle song selection of Suicide Squad).
The show doesn’t look like anything else, doesn’t cut together like anything else, says fuck-you to the idea of “where is this?” or “when are we?” It’s overloaded with style, and some might bristle at that, but it’s style worn comfortably over intriguing substance. It’s not afraid to be sentimental, hilarious, terrifying, outrageous, disturbed, distracting, profound and irrelevant, always in the same episode, often in the same moment.
In the early going, I thought Hawley was perhaps just using the Fox/Marvel franchise as a stepping-off point to indulge some weird experimental boundary-pushing televised mindscrew that would have very little relevance to or reverence for the source material. But while it definitely feels like he’s getting away with something, there’s no way that giant synergy machine would ever let him get away with all of that. So for those looking for a fullblown high concept comic booky genre show, it’s definitely there. In spades. With inscrutable government agents and spooky organizations and demonic presences and superpowered showdowns and carnage galore. For those who might watch the first one or two and think, Where is this going? It’s going nowhere, right? like it’s Lost all over again, you needn’t worry. Just as with Fargo, there’s nary an i un-dotted or a t uncrossed in the tightly plotted, flab-free eight episode arc. Why more shows don’t keep things to this manageable number is beyond me (I’m looking at you Netflix/Marvel).
Needless to say after all that emotive gushing, this is not Generation X’s Generation X. It’s post-millennial post-modern high art for lowbrow lovers of pop wonderment. If I ever get a chance to turn The Villain’s Sidekick into a TV series I’d want to do something as tight and well-defined and satisfyingly one-and-done as Hawley’s done with this flagship season. It’s like he’s taken the best lessons of indie film, art school, mini-series, his record collection and serialized soap operatic funnybook storytelling and put it in one of those blenders people pay a thousand bucks for because it can even make hot soup.
Go taste the perfection.
March 21st! That’s tomorrow! And by the time some of you read this it’ll be today, or yesterday, or sometime last year when you’ll really wish you’d known about it before all the shit went down. It’s bound to be a wildly entertaining anthology with something for everybody who likes superheroes, funnybooks, movies based on funnybooks about superheroes, TV shows spun off from movies based on funnybooks, or just enjoys slowing their roll long enough in this era of endless infotainment deluge to read crazy genre stuff on the printed and/or digital page.
A couple years back, I went Googling for ways to connect with other writers scribbling away in the strange little subgenre of superpowered fiction and came across The Pen and Cape Society, a consortium of like-minded scribes all aiming for the same thing–to shed a little more light and legitimacy on the stuff we love to create. They’re an invite-only group, so I kinda forced myself on them, hoping it would help me reach a wider audience and give me a chance to commiserate with my own kind. They were generous enough to deem me worthy, and now, with the imminent publication of the third Good Fight anthology I feel like I’m finally a full-fledged member.
I haven’t read any of the other stories in this collection as yet, but I have read the first two volumes and they are terrific. I can’t imagine this one being a big step down in quality or anything. As for my fans, both of you should be thrilled to know that I’ve written yet another long-ish short prequel to The Villain’s Sidekick, called The Henchman’s Apprentice. So if you ever wondered what HandCannon’s first real bad-guy job was like, how he adapted to his machine gun arm and other accoutrements, what kind of tacos he likes, his taste in drugs, and how his first kill went down, this is the place to read about it.
The official release date is March 21st, but The Good Fight, Vol. 3: Sidekicks is available for pre-order right freakin’ now.
As I further contemplate the turning of the screw that is achieving a half century of life, I find myself wanting to give away my earthly possessions–well, some of them anyway; definitely not the ones I use daily, like my car or any of my flatscreens or personal electronics–so I figure it’s a fine time to keep it rolling with a digital giveaway of the HandCannon origin story, The Devil’s Right Hand. So let your keyboarding fingers do the walking over to Amazon where, from February 15th to the 19th, you can get yourself familiar with the life and times of Duke “HandCannon” LaRue.
And if you happen by today, the book that started it all, The Villain’s Sidekick, is available for that same non-price for a few more hours. Makes a great Valentine’s Day gift (for lonely types who like their book-readin’ anyhow).
Full disclosure: I’m about to have one of those milestone birthdays this month, where I find myself a lot older than the younger version of me ever thought I’d live to be. So in honor of that, I guess, I’m offering a couple of my books free this month over on Amazon, beginning with the one that started it all, The Villain’s Sidekick. For the next five days, grab it and run and get the skinny on Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, the semi-lovable henchmen with a machine gun arm, an iron jaw, a steel-plated skull, a lethal boss, an irritable ex-wife, a precocious six-year-old daughter, and a heart of pyrite. It’s short enough to finish in three to five bathroom sittings and there’s plenty more where that came from (including an upcoming prequel story in the third Good Fight anthology and the origin tale, The Devil’s Right Hand, which will be available free next week).
I know I’m a good writer. I’m also long-resigned to the truth that I’ll never be a great writer. Whatever literary merit my pulpy seriocomic adventure stories contain is largely the byproduct of having ingested enough canonically “great” literature that nanoscopic slivers of same will occasionally, mostly accidentally, sneak in between the many overwrought adjectives and adverbs of my purplish prose. Let me put it this way: if Stephen King is the self-described “Big Mac and fries of American literature,” I’m more like that slightly seedy neighborhood taco truck that a lot of people would avoid just on general appearance, but that an adventurous few would stumble across and consider a secret treasure.
For literary classicists and cultural gatekeepers, even in this enlightened postmodern age, it’s probably still hard to convince the bulk of them that any story containing superpowered people with offbeat costumes and absurd codenames could even aspire to literary merit. Sure, a few have tried, most notably Jonathan Lethem with his well-regarded Fortress of Solitude, but even Michael Chabon didn’t dare let Kavalier & Clay’s fictitious comic book creation, the Escapist, out into the real-world pages of his sprawling tale.
So kudos to Lavie Tidhar, who threw down the gauntlet when he published The Violent Century in early 2015. This is a swing-for-the-fences attempt at Big Idea literature double-wrapped in pulp genre, equal parts John Le Carre Cold War spy novel, Don Delillo-ish examination of cultural and political mores across the whole of the 20th century, and a healthy dose of Ed Brubaker’s The Marvels Project for good measure. Tidhar’s novel, as he describes it, is not alternate but “parallel” history, a world where powered Ubermenschen fought and spied alongside us through the major conflicts of the 20th century starting with World War II. But where a book like Watchmen shows us how the presence of supers drastically rewrites the landscape, technology and political climate of our world, Tidhars ubers have surprisingly little effect on the outcome, and reality more or less remains on track.
One of the dead giveaways that this book is taking itself, its themes, and even its supers seriously is evident the moment you start reading. Tidhar makes an unusual, at times confounding stylistic choice, to not set dialogue in quotation marks, or even break his paragraphs in a normal way. It’s easy enough to pick up on what he’s doing and mostly the story flows regardless, but at times it left me rereading a line once or twice to correctly assess who, if anyone, is speaking, and what sentence or clause is internal monologue or authorial voice. The motive for this mostly seems, to me, to be to set the book apart from a more straightforward novel, as if using a more conventional approach would render his story no more than airport newsstand fodder, Tom Clancy with caped crusaders. Whether or not this is the case, this kind of experimental gameplay with the “rules” of writing is a frequent tic of those with higher literary aspirations.
More than anything, Century is an espionage tale, not quite a thriller, but full of intrigue and betrayal and bait-and-switch, questionable moral decisions made in the service of a “greater good” or just pure self-interest. There are cloak-and-dagger field operatives, a handler known only as The Old Man whose motives are as questionable as his ethics, a damsel-in-need-saving, friends that turn enemy and vice versa, and some potentially colorful supporting and side characters, not to mention Russian, British and American superheroes and, most thrillingly, a Nazi werewolf and a Jewish vampire facing off in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. At times it’s exactly as entertaining as it sounds. At other times, it feels like a bit less self-seriousness could be taken with these big wild pulpy ideas.
While the novel is definitely an easily digestible page turner, with short chapters allowing for small bites until you can’t believe you ate the whole thing, and Tidhar’s prose is often quite lovely, the storytelling comes up short in the characters. The main protagonist is a former British intelligence officer/Ubermensch who goes by the name of Fogg (because he can control mists and clouds and such, y’see), and while we spend ample time with him and in his head, he never fully comes alive as a fleshed-out human being. His onetime partner, Oblivion (who can makes things vanish with a touch of his hands), gets even shorter shrift, and disappears for long stretches, as do most of the supporting characters. There’s a love story between Fogg and a young woman who might be the most powerful of all, but she is so thinly conceived and characterized it’s difficult to connect with the supposed depth of his feelings for her.
Likewise, Tidhar sprinkles in fascinating real-life historical figures like a young Alan Turing or Wernher von Braun, but doesn’t give them anything to do. I mean, if you’re going to drag as fascinating a 20th century figure as Turing into your story, at least give him one juicy moment that either propels the plot or sticks in the mind. The characterizations are so surface level, the book often reads more as pure allegory than gripping, globe-and-time-spanning epic. Which is fine, if you like allegory. Maybe I’m just too meat-and-potatoes when it comes to the narratives I’m drawn to, but the bulk of what I read, watch (and write) draws me in with a focus on well-written characters. A terrific premise and clever plot mechanics are all well and good, but I need a character I can hang my hat on while I take the ride. And while I don’t shy away from “challenging” reading, this isn’t that. It’s a pretty simple, possibly even flimsy tale that uses its genre trappings like curious adornments.
I’m still not entirely sure what Tidhar’s superpeople were meant to represent within this semi-conventional spy story framework. I think a deeper dive into their inner lives, and richer details in their relationships could have really helped. There’s an opaqueness to both motivation and action that left me wondering if I was missing something deeper, or applying profundity where it didn’t entirely exist. Case in point: despite their awesome elemental powers, characters frequently use guns, which makes sense against the backdrop of war and its aftermath, but also seemed to undercut both their abilities and the potential of the sparse action sequences. At one point, when using his eradication powers would seem to be the perfect solution, Oblivion instead chooses to strangle a man to death and dump his body. I was hoping there was significance to the choice, but in context it just seemed as if the author forgot his character could do that.
This probably all sounds more critical than it should. I enjoyed reading this (and might have enjoyed it as a graphic novel even more so), and honestly I don’t think I could even attempt what Tidhar has aimed for here. If I tried to render HandCannon a metaphor for male violence or the lingering damage of PTSD or anything much more profound than an aging enhanced thug with a redemption arc, I’d either get lost up my own ass or suffer failure-related panic attacks. So again, my hat is off to Tidhar for letting his Big Ideas share space with cleverly conceived super-powered do-gooders and do-badders. I just wish it was a little clearer in the end what the Big Ideas really were. While there’s a compelling, well-crafted story here, it’s a little bit like dining on $25 gourmet ceviche tacos and realizing you wish you’d just gone to the truck.