Real Human Stories and Other Fallacies

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As a long-time member of SAG/AFTRA (and a soon-to-be-ex-member of the Writer’s Guild), the holiday season officially begins when the awards screeners start to trickle in, appearing sporadically in my mailbox from early November to late December. This is the time of year that ostensibly gives the lie to the notion that all Hollywood produces is superhero movies and CGI blockbusters. The movies that arrive, the ones comprised of scripts and performances allegedly worthy of consideration among the pantheon of serious, award-worthy efforts, range from the heavily heralded (Angelina Jolie’s tale of WW2-era triumph of the spirit “Unbroken”) to the borderline invisible (Julianne Moore as an early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferer in “Still Alice”). Packaged in tasteful boxes or indifferently stuffed into generic slipcovers, these are the real gifts that my family looks forward to me dutifully packing into my luggage and bringing home to Texas so they can enjoy or dismiss them all from the comfort of my parents’ living room before their friends can even get out to see them in theaters. Inevitably, one of the “must-sees” always gets lost in the shuffle and left behind at home (this year, it was the Reese Witherspoon-goes-walkabout character drama “Wild”) and I feel guilt disproportionate to the crime for not being able to give them this rare and special treat.

We gather and watch them one and sometimes two a night, working through the stack and ticking them off the list. Most of them are entirely watchable, even the ones that I had little personal interest in seeing based on mediocre reviews or tepid-seeming subject matter (Robert Downey Jr.’s foray into intimate family drama “The Judge,” which boasts fine performances from a cast of ringers including Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio and Vera Farmiga). Some of them are mildly interesting variations on an expected genre or theme (“A Most Violent Year,” despite its title, is intentionally as near-bloodless as a crime drama about a mob-averse businessman can be; de rigeur disease pic “Still Alice” contains an incredibly nuanced and sympathetic performance from Moore; as for “Unbroken,” I liked it better 30 years ago when it was called “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”). Some of them I know are not going to be for everyone, or maybe anyone (creepy “Nightcrawler” was reserved for just me and my old man to view, and we enjoyed it well enough, though it’s not the second coming of “Taxi Driver” early previews might have suggested, and I still haven’t found the right time to pop in PTA’s “Inherent Vice”).

The point here is, somehow, year after year, despite the dire pronouncements of friends, family and film reviewers, small human stories still get made, somehow. And while it’s impossible to argue that the big Hollywood machine has shifted focus to superheroes in a way that’s not only extreme, but borderline absurd, I bristle when I hear cinema snobs blame the fanboys for that fact. Obviously, the movie business is about the bottom dollar now more than ever, but if superhero movies are what’s dominating the global box office, there aren’t enough fanboys in the known multiverse to account for all that money. It’s the average filmgoer, looking for adrenaline-fueled escapism just as they did during the action movie dominance of the ’80s, or the better part of the 20th century, when something like 70-80% of movies produced in Hollywood were Westerns (before CGI, what gave you more bang for your epic Cinemascope buck than Monument Valley teeming with a thousand extras, herds of buffalo, and galloping horses being run to death). And many of those much-derided genre movies are now beloved timeless classics, from “The Searchers” or “My Darling Clementine” to “Die Hard” and the early Terminators, while a multitude of the “intimate human stories” and art house favorites of those eras have tumbled into obscurity along with all the other piles of pure product.

As a part-time fanboy, I love quality small scale, art house and original cinema as much as I enjoy the Marvel Universe. One of the best movies I’ve seen in the past two decades is Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough “Winter’s Bone,” and I could watch it a thousand times to the single viewing any of the “Hunger Games” movies deserve. Conversely, my favorite movie of 2014 was and remains “The Winter Soldier,” as good a piece of smart high-dollar cinema as the Big Machine has ever produced, “The Searchers” of the superhero genre, and it doesn’t hurt that its filmmakers boldly chose one of the greatest periods of American cinema, the dark, paranoid ’70s of “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View,” as its main source of inspiration. I rewatched it with my dad this Xmas–one of the few movies he hadn’t already seen, because my septugenarian and semi-retired parents go to see EVERYTHING–and he loved it as much as I knew he would. For me, it holds up to repeat viewings in a way that none of these awards-bait pics has so far. Sure, “A Most Violent Year” was completely watchable, but was it rewatchable? Not really. Even if you love “Unbroken” (which I didn’t because see above), would you want to sit through that highbrow torture porn twice? I thought last year’s “12 Years a Slave” was fantastic and essential and important, but do I want to tune it in on late-night cable and fall asleep to it? No thanks–I’ll let “Django Unchained” be my slave-narrative lullaby. Does that make me shallow? Maybe, but it also makes me pretty normal. I don’t think all film needs to be comfort food, obviously, and I frequently get “more” out of those films that are anything but, but I don’t tend to revisit them, and therefore they don’t become favorites. Oftentimes, they just feel like chores.

“The Judge”–an unfortunate box office failure for Downey–is a very watchable, at times highly entertaining piece of fluff masquerading as “human drama,” every bit as much a slice of comfort food pie as any superhero flick, and every inch its own kind of Hollywood fantasy–the big city slicky returns to his small town and his dysfunctional family to recover the soul he left behind, and find a little redemption for everyone in the bargain. In terms of RDJ’s performance, it’s basically Iron Man Goes Home, his fast-talking lawyer spouting Tony Stark quality laugh-lines several times per scene. It’s an enjoyably crowd-pleasing star turn that he could deliver in his sleep at this point, and for my fanboy money, his emotional arc in “Iron Man 3” is still more satisfying. And rewatchable.

If you’re looking for real outside-the-box (and outside-the-box-office) human stories, which do somehow continue to defy the odds and get made despite the total global domination of special effects and spandex, I recommend trawling Netflix for the endless stream of amazing foreign and independent films across all genres that I stumble across on a weekly basis. In the coming weeks I’ll recommend a few of my favorites by genre as definitive proof that if you love film, and regardless of your feelings regarding Hollywood product, genuine original cinema is alive and well in the world, and there seems to be as much or more of it than ever.

In the meantime, hey Academy, where the hell is my awards-season screener of the best indie movie of the year, “Blue Ruin”? It’s almost like these award things are complete bullshit or something.

Infinite Midlife Crisis

If I were to try and trace the beginnings of my midlife crisis–such as it’s been–I imagine I could source its origins back to early 2008, when I was deeply unemployed and desperately depressed enough to seek help via a depression study I heard about in a radio ad. I’d been in a deep funk for months, the kind of constant emotional turmoil and pain that was reminiscent of the darkest depths of heartbreak I’d experienced at the crash-and-burn of romantic entanglements, or the bleak apocalyptic despair that inexplicably overwhelmed me during my first semester at college, when my personal uncertainties about the future manifested in the certainty that mankind as a species was doomed. A chronic self-medicator, I’d eschewed therapy and prescribed chemical assistance for the depression that had been my bane for most of my existence, from at least adolescence onward.

That depression, which the octogenarian head of the study would later refer to as “profound,” consisted of some fairly straightforward talk-therapy sessions, some very “Parallax View” computer memory tests, a little bit of cognitive conditioning, one of the scariest blood draws I ever experienced in my life (the slightly daffy, possibly incompetent nurse couldn’t seem to locate any of my admittedly pale veins, and I doubt GPS tracking would have helped her), and the administration of a drug that may or may not have been akin to Lexapro. It was a blind study, and of course no one could tell me if I was in the control group or the experimental group, so I had to take it on faith that I was actually getting help in that regard. I drew my own conclusions when, within two weeks, I started to feel like a human being and not a shambling meatbag full of simmering anxiety, swampy self-pity, bitter resentments and societal rage all swirling in my personal shame spiral.

Equally important, my wife noticed too, which was fantastic because my moods were not exactly contributing to harmony in the homestead, as you can imagine. Our son was a toddler at the time and my inner lethargy and emotional muck-wallowing meant I could barely see past the tip of my dick, much less offer any meaningful parental assistance. So in the nick of time, and while I had the time, thanks to unemployment, I took some action–mildly absurd action, it felt at the time, but at least a research study seemed like an interesting thing to do–and managed to rescue myself from ennui and maybe oblivion in the bargain.

There were still plenty of challenges to come–shitty jobs and worse bosses (but at least I was working again), personal setbacks, life shit, plus while things got easier at home, they didn’t suddenly become perfect. Magic pills they may have seemed, but even magic takes effort to keep working. I’ve remained on medication ever since, and fortunately I react well to what I’m on–no noticeable side effects and no recurrence of major depression, which is a big deal considering that in those early years I was still augmenting the meds with alcohol and drugs, self-medicating my mid-life away.

I suppose phase two of this crisis made itself known in earnest around 2010, when I was deep into popping a constant stream of unprescribed (at least to me) painkillers while simultaneously rekindling my long-shelved love of funnybooks. I’ve written a bit about this before, but I blame Ed Brubaker, particularly his Sleeper, Incognito and Captain America, in re-igniting this fire, to the degree that I began reworking a straightforward but stagnating (and still not quite finished) scifi novel I was writing into a superhero-stuffed opus involving Nazi scientists, atomic-powered sex goddesses, human-ape hybrids, ultrasecret agents and all manner of mid-20th-century craziness (gimme a couple more years and a few more books in between and I promise you it’s on its way).

The drug and alcohol abuse went the way of the dinosaur, but the reborn passion for comics didn’t. Good timing, too, because somewhere in there my wife bought me a Kindle and I discovered the joys of comixology and digital comics in general (if you’re a Luddite print-freak who takes issue with this, I respect that, but I still selectively collect when I can, and I only got so much shelf space). Not to mention the fact that Marvel’s complete takeover of Summer blockbuster cinema also coincided with all this, and suddenly my deep middle ages are a pretty incredible time to be a fan of well-made escapist entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong–I still enjoy serious grounded arthouse drama onscreen and on the tube and on the printed or computerized page–but if I have to be honest, 40-something me seems to crave, desire and appreciate the indulgent fun of alternate realities and costumed crusades more than adolescent me ever did. Which makes sense, seeing as I’m more or less the same age as a lot of my favorite creators of this material.

I’m also fortunate that, in creating and publishing my own superhero-centric fiction, I’ve discovered a whole vast narrative prose subgenre, much of it of great quality and sophistication. From Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” to Mike Leon’s “Kill Kill Kill” to Casey Glander’s Gailsone series and on and on, there is just a wealth of this stuff to be found on Amazon and elsewhere at very affordable prices and it’s a shit-ton of quick-reading fun that covers a lot of ground, from balls-out satire to sharply human drama to blood-soaked action.

And then there’s TV. I mean, seriously, just between Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. alone it is truly a great time to be a fan of this stuff, weekly doses of genuine comic book awesomeness beamed straight into my eyes for free! And if you’re a true Marvel fan who checked out on S.H.I.E.L.D. in the early, pre-Winter Soldier portion of its first season, I strongly urge you to give it another shot because not only did it come screaming to life after that shot in the arm in the back half of last season, it’s come roaring out of the gate in season two with a kind of confidence in its characters and storytelling that makes it seem like everyone on staff over there started taking the creative equivalent of supersoldier serum over the Summer. Seriously, last year Arrow was my favorite piece of pure entertainment on the idiot box, but so far this year S.H.I.E.L.D. is just crushing everything in its storytelling path. But I digress.

I guess my point, if I have one, is that there are certainly worse ways to “suffer” a midlife crisis. My life is better than it’s ever been. I’m writing, I’m creating, I’m being a better husband and father than I ever thought I could, and in between, I spend a lot more time with superheroes than I do with drug dealers.

So my Bukowski and Hunter Thompson-worshipping/emulating days are behind me. I’m not going to buy a Harley, have a tawdry affair, go on a wild bender, quit my job and run off to an ashram. Or at least, I won’t as long as I can keep getting my superhero fix.

Dark History

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In 2011, my good friend and former longtime writing and comedy partner, Les Milton, got a plumb gig creating content for the Nintendo DS game “Captain America: Super Soldier,” released concurrently with the film “Captain America: The First Avenger.” I haven’t played the game, but I doubt the gameplay is half as subversively hilarious as what Les created in these secret documents, which include transcriptions of recorded meetings between the Red Skull, Arnim Zola and Baron Zemo, correspondence between them, and letters home from a captive GI and a Hydra recruit. Sublimely ridiculous, they tell a dark story of body horror, attempted world domination and shared obsessions with food and sex. Anyway, I believe these should be preserved for posterity for those of you unlikely to stumble across them in the game.

Minutes of meeting between The Red Skull, Zola, and Zemo

 (Transcribed by XXXXX XXXXXXX on XX May, XXXX, via hidden micro-audio devices.)

Red Skull (RS):Ah, at last!

Arnim Zola (AZ):     You are six and one half minutes late, Baron.

Heinrich Zemo (HZ):  Herr Skull, it is a pleasure to see you again.

RS:  And you, Baron. You are looking fit.

HZ:  Thank you. When I stopped eating, the pounds just melted away.

RS:  Come, join us at the table.

HZ:  I’d love to.

The parties walk into the dining hall and are seated.

AZ:  Please forgive us if we eat without you. I’m afraid our schedule makes it necessary to combine our duties, especially since you arrived later than expected.

RS:  Yes, Baron, I hope you are not uncomfortable.

HZ:  Not at all Herr Skull. My…condition…has helped me to…more clearly understand the difference between myself and…lesser men.

AZ:  I admire your powers of rationalization, Baron. I would be tempted to shoot myself were I to suffer from such an indignant handicap, brought about during a humiliating defeat by our most hated enemy. This steak is delicious, Herr Skull.

HZ:  That you might choose the path of cowardice and weakness is hardly surprising, Doctor. It only serves to illustrate my point about lesser men.

RS:  And now that the formalities are out of the way, let us discuss our plans.

HZ:  A most refreshing suggestion, Herr Skull. I assume that you require the use of my facilities and skills.

AZ:  Certainly the former, while the latter are debatable. These potatoes are perfectly cooked.

HZ:  Tell me, Herr Skull. What purpose does the Doctor, here, serve? Other than to repeatedly insult me? And how does his presence help to win my cooperation?

RS:  Doctor Zola, while often grating personally, is essential to our overall plans of complete domination. If I can stomach his odious presence, you should have no problem.

AZ:  Odious…?

RS:  And your cooperation is not to be won, but is rather expected.

HZ:  I was not aware that I was your subordinate, Herr Skull.

RS:  That is not what I intended, Baron. Much of your scientific research has been funded by HYDRA. Many of your more…elusive and exotic scientific components have been obtained for you by HYDRA.

HZ:  And my services to HYDRA, the technological advances in weaponry and communications, have more than paid for its investments.

AZ:  Your arrogance is insufferable, Zemo!

RS:  Sit down, Doctor.

AZ:  Forgive me, Herr Skull, but I cannot sit here while this…this…deformed malcontent treats you like this. Bartering with you…like a commoner!

HZ:  (stands) Zola, you have all the wit and dignity of a baboon. Skull, I will take my leave of you for now.

AZ:  Of course, he runs away! He doesn’t care about your plans, Skull! He only–!

RS:  ZOLA! SHUT! UP!

AZ:  Yes, sir.

RS:  Baron, please sit down.

HZ:  I’m afraid it is impossible for now. Let us meet again without this blithering monkey of yours. His presence makes it impossible for rational dialogue. Good night, Herr Skull.

(Baron Zemo exits the room.)

AZ:  That was rather brief.

RS:  That I am not strangling you at this very moment is a testament to my will power, Zola.

AZ:  Herr Skull, the man is unstable!

RS:  That is irrelevant! You have delayed everything, do you realize that?

AZ:  But I –

RS:  I cannot hear your voice any more tonight, or you will surely die. Do not approach me or speak to me until you are summoned. Do you understand?

AZ:  I—

RS:  Just nod, you fool! Good. I have such a headache…

(The Red Skull exits the room.)

 AZ:  Well…that’s just more dessert for me.

(end of transmission)

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Letters between The Red Skull, Zola, and Zemo

Greetings Baron,

Herr Skull would appreciate the honor of your company on April XX in order to discuss the implementation of his vision for our collaboration in the service of HYDRA.

Best regards,

Doctor Arnim Zola

P.S. Dinner will be served with a choice of chicken or fish.

 

Baron,

We have yet to receive your response to my invitation for dinner. If you are uninterested in ruling the world together, you only have to tell me. There is no place for coyness in any realistic plan for global domination.

Yours in Victory,

The Red Skull

 

My Dear Colleague,

Please forgive the delay in my response. Once I received your second notice, I discovered that my secretary, unfortunately, had been neglecting her responsibilities due to a case of sublimated hysteria. I was forced to destroy her, but the anticipation of meeting with you has assuaged any last remnants of regret I might have been harboring. I shall be very pleased to see you at the appointed time. I will, however, not be eating, as my recent accident has necessitated that I receive all sustenance intravenously.

Until Then, I Remain Your Humble Servant,

Baron Heinrich Zemo

 

Baron,

Herr Skull wishes me to inform you that he was rather displeased with our dinner meeting last week. Your habitual tardiness was, as always, frustrating. But your lack of enthusiasm for our plan has pushed Herr Skull towards a furious desperation. He wishes to meet with you at your castle in one week in order to further discuss this matter.

Here is a list of Herr Skull’s requirements for his stay:

–        Fresh fruit shall be available during the meeting and in his room.

–        None of the staff are to look Herr Skull directly in the eyes or to be left handed.

–        A single bed will be provided, with tussah silk sheets and no pillow.

–        Bavarian chocolate will be found playfully strewn on the nightstand and dresser.

–        Before retiring for the evening, Herr Skull will require a twenty five year old female of pleasing appearance and disposition who stands between five feet, two inches and five feet, six inches in height, weighing no less than 105 pounds, but no more than 125 pounds, along with a bottle of ’28 Knyphausen.

–        As a wake-up call, “Hänschen Klein” shall be played on a lone flugelhorn outside Herr Skull’s window.

–        In the morning, no one is to have breakfast.

Please be certain that all of these requirements are met. You will also benefit from a change in your attitude.

Regards,

Doctor Arnim Zola

 

Zola,

You foolishly assume that I care one whit what you have to say. I have personally slaughtered calves with more interesting points of view.

If Herr Skull wishes to arrange for another meeting, he may contact me himself. Frankly, your sycophantic whining does nothing to persuade me to join your cause. I prefer the company of actual men, so your presence is not required.

Go To Hell,

Baron Heinrich Zemo

 

My Valued Friend,

I do apologize for the tone in Dr. Zola’s most recent correspondence. He did not speak for me, and while his exploitable talents make him too valuable to exterminate, I intend to reassign him to a distant post at the earliest opportunity. He is a thoroughly annoying toady, whose mere voice is enough to send me into a murderous rage, while every day I diminish my supply of competent domestic help.

Please meet with me in three days at Leuschnerstraße 61 in Stuttgart. I assure you that what I have to offer, and what we can accomplish, will be most satisfactory. The sooner our partnership begins, the sooner our domination of the globe will become a reality. And the sooner Zola and his homicide inducing perturbations will be out of our lives.

Faithfully,

The Red Skull

 

Herr Skull,

No apology is necessary. It thrills me to no end that we share an opinion of the detestable Zola, whose very name causes my soul to recoil in spasms of hatred.   That I might soon be spared the tortures of his company, his grating voice, his questionable odors, his adoration of Carl Von Linde’s advances in refrigeration, is as desirable a dream as ruling the planet. I look forward with great anticipation to our meeting and forthcoming alliance.

Your Loyal Comrade,

Baron Heinrich Zemo

(carbon copy)

My Dear Baron Zemo,

Herr Skull asked me to explain. I am sure, as you stand on this empty plot of land in Stuttgart, reading this letter, your heart is dropping. You probably are now realizing that you have been betrayed, that your life’s work and homestead have been taken from you by men far better suited to utilize the great resources you once controlled. Perhaps you instinctively crave revenge, but quickly conclude in dull horror that your former property is now occupied by thousands of HYDRA troops, its formidable mechanical defenses now turned against you, their very creator. At this point, maybe you have correctly assumed that we’d be foolish to let you live. Perhaps our assassins have not just yet ended your life, and you can hear my laughter echoed in every word of this letter, the last thing you will ever read. You stupid, stupid man.

Auf Wiedersehen, Dummkopf,

Zola

Arnim Zola

Correspondence between Madame Hydra and Baron Strucker

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My Dear Fraulein Hiss,

I was overjoyed when the Director informed me that you were to be assigned to Operation Kneifenwurst, as I have been named the Project Manager. After repeated viewings of your…files, I have the utmost confidence that your abilities will only serve to hasten our victories over any and all enemies.

I was hoping that perhaps we could meet for a review of our goals and strategies. There is a lovely restaurant in Schleswig renowned for its spanferkel. Perhaps you know it? The manager is deathly afraid of me, so he always gives me a private room.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in Allegiance,

Baron Wolfgang von Strucker

 

Dear Baron,

What a pleasant surprise it was to receive your letter. I have heard tell of your great Prussian family and its service to the Motherland over the years. Indeed, when I was informed that I would be heading the Communications and Castigation Departments for Operation Kneifenwurst, I was secretly hoping that you would be…managing the project.

I think it is wise of you to suggest a meeting between us prior to the project’s commencement. Schleswig sounds lovely, but surely there is somewhere more private? My assistant happens to make excellent spanferkel, as I’ve always believed that roasted suckling pig is perfect for any meal. Could you meet me tomorrow night at Bismarckstraße 18? Ten o’clock?

If this is convenient, please don’t trouble yourself to respond. I will simply be expecting you. And I am anticipating the progress we will make together.

Yours to Command,

Agent Leona Hiss

 

Dearest Leona,

Though writing to you this way violates our professional code, I am unable to control myself. My senses are still numb after our night of passion. Was it a dream? I pray it was not. You were gone when I awoke, but your scent lingered, as did the aching physical mementos of our time together.

Never before have I felt helpless. Never have I lacked total control of every situation in which I have found myself. Even as a small child, the apprehensions which govern the actions of most men were absent from my mind. But in the span of just a few nocturnal hours of pure bliss, you have entered my life like a force of nature, like a lightning bolt from the gods, and I wonder if I shall ever recover my former self.

The fervor of the evening precluded any constructive conversation regarding Operation Kneifenwurst, and so I believe we should meet again at our earliest opportunity. Any time. Any place.

Profoundly Yours,

Wolfgang

P.S.      The spanferkel was excellent. You are indeed fortunate to have an assistant with such culinary skills.

 

April XX, 19XX

Baron Strucker,

I am pleased you enjoyed our time together. I found it both stimulating and cathartic. However, while you seem bewildered by the unusual strength of your emotions, I can offer a clear explanation for them.

As I’m sure you are aware, my expertise in natural and artificial toxins, along with the lethal forms of martial arts, is unsurpassed. But our Director, the great Red Skull, did not believe my reputation in regards to the former. I convinced him to test me. He claimed that, despite your appetite for carnal activities, you consider women to be ultimately disposable, your devotion to the cause always afire, burning off the emotional ties which ensnare less devoted men. You and I are very much alike.

The spanferkel had an artificial compound of my own design within its tender, moist flesh. But there is no need for concern. In less than a week you should have returned to your true nature and will perhaps even share in my amusement. After all, I only used science to do to you what you have done to innumerable women using wine and lies. And you will recover much sooner than they did.

And now I must inform you that there will be no Operation Kneifenwurst. It was a ruse created by the Director in order to test my abilities. You have been assigned to be the Leader of Security and Combat Divisions of HYDRA for our next and most important endeavor: Project Vernichten. I will retain the title given to me for the pseudo-operation, but, like you, I will report only to Arnim Zola and the Director himself. The details of your responsibilities and the relevant timetables are included with this correspondence.

You provided me with a vigorous and rather entertaining outlet. For that, I thank you. As we are to be equals, and as we both are in agreement in our opinions of the opposite sex, I believe we will have ample opportunities be of a similar service to each other as the Project proceeds.

Finally, the Director did not only increase my rank within our organization. He gave me a new name.

Until the End,

Madame Hydra

 

Dear Madame,

I accept your explanation and the change of plans as any good soldier would. According to my itinerary, we will meet again in three days, and I retain my confidence in our ability to move our cause ever forward and through the remains of those who would stand in our way.

However, I should inform you that, despite your assertions to the contrary, after two weeks since my exposure to your infernal compounds, my feelings towards you have not changed, nor their intensity decreased in the slightest.

You should review your formulas.

Apparently Yours,

Baron Wolfgang von Strucker

 

Madame Hydra

Diary entries of G.I. prisoner

 May XX, 1944

It’s been four hours since we were captured. I can’t make heads or tails of what kind of an organization they’ve got here. I’m in a small cage with Jackson. He’s in and out of it. I think they stopped the bleeding. I don’t know how they did it, they only had him for 30 minutes and I saw what his leg looked like before they took him.

It’s the weirdest thing. The cage looks filthy. It’s wet, there’s mud and straw everywhere. But there’s no smell. Nothing. I know it’s not my nose because Jackson and I stink to high heaven. It’s like they decorated a sterile environment.

I can’t seem to think straight. Or keep my eyes open. I wasn’t injured badly. Wonder if I was drugged. But I haven’t passed out or had anything to eat or drink. Maybe something in the air. Just need a catnap.

 

May XX, 1944

Jackson disappeared while I slept. Woke up with a headache and stitches in my abdomen. I don’t know what they’re doing to us.

I know there are other G.I.’s here, but no one answers when I call out.

I was starving, but still reluctant to eat when they brought food, a weird puree of what tasted like lobster in butter and garlic. It was in a very small dish, just a few ounces, but I felt full after eating it.

There are screams coming from somewhere nearby. Howls and barking, too, it sounds like. Strange humming, a large machine, maybe?

Twice in two hours, two different guards came to our block and read propaganda to us in broken English. The first one wouldn’t talk to me, but the second one, a chubby twerp with glasses on his mask, seemed intrigued by my inquiries. He was skittish, looking around as we spoke, probably breaking the rules. He asked lots of questions, where I was from, my favorite movie stars. He seemed lonely, so maybe I can take advantage of that.

I seem to be sleepy all the time. Is it the food? I have to try to resist eating. Staying awake is getting harder.

 

June ?, 1944

There have been too many visits and too much sleeping for me to write. Jackson has come and gone a dozen times since my last entry. Always when I’m sleeping. He’s here in the cell as I write this. Staring off into space. There’s a small box attached to his neck in the back. It buzzes every time he blinks.

The strange sounds continue. The food is disgusting to look at, but irresistible. The mush I had last night tasted like rib-eye. It’s so good, I don’t even mind the texture. I want to stop eating it, I do. I know there’s something in it that makes me sleep. I refused it twice, but then I started to get sick and shake all over, and I ate. Portabella mushrooms and truffles in olive oil. It was delicious.

The chubby guard has been visiting more often. I thought I might be able to use him somehow, but it’s pretty clear that even if he wanted to help, he wouldn’t be able to. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Not much of a soldier either. Obviously a mama’s boy who doesn’t want to be here. And twice he’s been joined by a bean pole who just stares at me and then whispers questions to tubby in German. They even giggle like schoolboys, sometimes. How did they even get in the club?

I’ve got three new sets of stitches. Left calf. Right thigh. Left forearm. They don’t hurt at all and I don’t feel anything beneath the skin. I wish I knew what they were doing. I asked the chubby guard, but he just shrugged and whispered that I should be glad that’s all they’ve done to me. Not very comforting.

I don’t want to eat and I don’t want to sleep. But they’ve made it impossible to resist.

 

June ??, 1944

Woke up with Jackson strangling me. Jackson was never very strong even when he was healthy, but his grip was unbreakable. I started seeing spots when he just let go and stared for a minute before walking to the other side of the cell. Then I noticed the little man in a lab coat and goggles near the cell door. He was holding a box with a dial and an antennae, and he was grinning. In a heavy accent he said, “That went well, don’t you think?” I screamed something at him, something about his mother, but he just kept grinning as he turned and walked away. Jackson stood at attention and stared ahead. I tried to snap him out of it. Then I tried to remove the little box on his neck, but he screamed in pain and knocked me across the cell. I must have hit my head, because I passed out. Only awake for maybe an hour when they brought in the food. That was about 30 minutes ago and I can’t keep my eyes open. It’s just so damn good.

 

June ???, 1944

Don’t know how much time has passed. There are large guns being fired. Jackson is gone. New sets of stitches on my right forearm and on both sides of my chest.

There’s a sense of panic. Guards running back and forth. I asked Tubby what was up as he ran by. He looked scared, then his bean pole buddy runs into him and says something about “the Captain.” Tubby says, “No!” Bean pole nods furiously and they just looked at each other for a second before running away.

The Captain. Could he really be here? God, I do hope he is. Because I’m not hungry anymore. And I’m not sleepy anymore. And there’s a small box on the back of my neck. It buzzes every time I blink.


Letters home from HYDRA agent

Dear Mother and Father,

I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write to you. Since communication with the outside world is strictly forbidden, I’m not sure if I will get the opportunity to send this to you, but I will try.

First, I must apologize for my hasty departure. So many things were happening, with my dismissal from the clerical guild and Ladinka breaking off our engagement, I felt an irresistible urge to escape my familiar world with all possible speed. I can’t understand why she left me. I often wonder if it was my near constant critiques of her behavior and appearance. But could she really be so overly-sensitive?

I am now in the employment of a large agency which works with the government on various aspects of the war. I have become a kind of soldier, but please do not worry. My instinctive cowardice has served me well in times of danger. And besides, we are far from the front lines.

Our Sector Superior, who I will call, “the Baron,” has kept us very busy these last few weeks. Occasionally, they allow me to guard a large laboratory. Strange sounds come from there. They unnerve me. I prefer the perimeter duty.

I have caught fleeting glimpses of a mysterious woman in the company of the Baron. Her long black hair is like silk and her clothing, while revealing nothing, leaves little to the imagination. I do not approve of this, obviously, but I endeavor to keep her from my thoughts, and I’m sure she is here for a good reason.

I have made some friends here. They’re not all bad, really. Of course, a good many are criminals and undesirables, and there have been a number of pranks at my expense, but on the whole, I’d say we’re growing closer every day. Our common goal is our bond and it cannot be broken.

The food is acceptable, but I miss your cabbage rolls. Even if they didn’t remind me of Ladinka, they are the best in Bamberg, by far.

With Love and Affection,

Wilhelm

 

Dear Mother and Father,

I have yet to think of a way to deliver my letters to you, but I will continue to write, so when that problem has been solved, you will have a clearer picture of my experiences here.

Ladinka dominates my thoughts. I thought we were so happy. The trip to Naples was unforgettable. True, we were being constantly shelled by the Allies, but the hours we spent together in the shelter, huddled together in the candlelight, were simply magical. I spend altogether too much time wondering why it changed.

Here, nothing much has changed. We spend most of our time guarding the premises and engaging in team-building exercises. I fear the rest of the soldiers have no faith in me. The pranks and jokes have mostly stopped, but no one seems to want to share my assignments. To be honest, I suspect they are jealous of my abilities. It is similar to what happened in my last clerical positions.

There is one fellow, however, who has taken a liking to me. Names are not allowed here, so he calls me, “2-28” and I refer to him as “10-64,” the prefixes of our codenames. Though he is somewhat clumsy physically and socially, I find myself spending more and more time with him. We apparently are of the same opinion regarding popular culture, with only a few glaring exceptions. For instance, while he claims that Fritz Grunbaum is an “overrated bore” – those were his very words – he simultaneously describes the “comedy” of Werner Finck as “sublime.” Ridiculous, isn’t it?

As there is little with which to entertain us here, gossip and rumor are abundant. It doesn’t help that animal sounds are heard not only in the laboratory, but in the Baron’s quarters. Certainly, the level of secrecy has only fueled these speculations; our constantly changing passwords, the codenames, prohibition on outside communications. Some here even believe that Captain America is an actual person, instead of the cheap, lowbrow propaganda that could only come from the cesspool of Hollywood, U.S.A.. I am surrounded by simpletons. It seems only 10-64 and I are immune to these immature flights of fancy.

Well, that is all for now. I must return to my duties, though I am loathe to do so. I trust you are both doing well. Papa, I hope your gout continues to improve.

Affectionately Yours,

Wilhelm

 

Dear Mother and Father,

How are you? I am getting by just fine. There is much time spent alone, on duty and off. I suppose I have only myself to blame. My respect for authority and the rule of law prompted me to report a fellow for sweeping the detritus of his quarters under his bed. He was, of course, summarily executed, but it was his own fault for flouting proper procedure. Most of my comrades have stopped speaking to me altogether, though it hasn’t stopped them from launching semi-solid gobs of spittle in my direction.

Fortunately, 10-64 has remained true. He has also been the target of the others’ scorn and silent derision because of his poor hygiene and loyalty to me, so we are glad to be able to support each other through this difficult time.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be reprimanded by Madame Hydra, the Baron’s companion. I thought for a moment that she was going to either kill me or ravish me then and there.

The sounds in the laboratory grow less identifiable with every passing evening. The screams have become less human. Not more animalistic, just less human.

I have made the acquaintance of an American prisoner. It is forbidden to talk to him, but I cannot help myself. He asks many questions, and I just answer with my own. He says that Rita Hayworth married Orson Welles and that Captain America is real. I don’t know which claim is the more ridiculously incredible.

Has Ladinka asked about me? Does she even care? I can’t imagine my disappearance has gone unnoticed. I can’t stop thinking about her. When we were together, I was frequently and unexpectedly repelled by her breath and her lazy eye. But now I would give anything for her musty scents to pass my nostrils or to stare deeply into that sluggish orb.

I must go now. I have promised to show 10-64 more from my collection of Katzenjammer Kids. As long as he doesn’t dismiss them again as “obviously derivative of Max and Moritz,” I’m sure to enjoy our visit.

Please take good care of yourselves.

Your Son,

Wilhelm

 

My Dear Mama and Papa,

I must be quick. I’m in a closet somewhere in this castle, in the farthest corner I could find. I have seen him! He is real. 10-64 saw him as well, but then the shield. The shield, it was everywhere at once, it seemed. Of course, I immediately feigned unconsciousness, and I watched him walk away. He didn’t seem human until he walked away. But unlike any human, ever. And he is real.

I feel the occasional rumble of an explosion, but otherwise, the sounds of battle have finally faded away. I think I am safe here, until I can decide what to do next.

I will probably not make it out of this castle, no matter who is the victor here today. If you see Ladinka, tell her I forgive her. And then tell her I’m dead. And tell her that if I could, I would hold her voluptuous body next to mine and devote myself to her all over again. But that it’s impossible. Because I am dead.

I’m sorry to make you worry, but I just don’t know what to do. I miss you so much, and I needed to hope that this and the rest of my letters would someday find their way to you, so that Ladinka would know what I went through because of her.

It is truly a terrible world.

Goodbye,

Wilhelm

hydra soldier

 

Les Milton is the author of “The Accidental Adventures of Dogget Mann,” an excellent work of original YA scifi and the first in a proposed series, so go buy it and let the guy get his ass to work writing the next installment:

http://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Adventures-Dogget-Mann-ebook/dp/B004LRP8LY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401812560&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Accidental+Adventures+of+Dogget+Mann

The Bruised Idealist

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How Captain America Became My Higher Power

“I’m ready to make it, don’t care ’bout the weather
Don’t care ’bout no trouble, got myself together”–Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man”

In the relatively brief period when I collected comics as a kid, I had a few mainstays, favorite characters that became such as a result of my luck in stumbling across them at a time when the books had creative teams that were reinventing and reinvigorating the characters and the medium as a whole. Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” run, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s early ’80s “X-Men” work, the Bill Sienkewiecz era of “Moon Knight,” Miller and Claremont again, teaming up on the first-ever solo “Wolverine” mini-series (comics readers born since that time period would be shocked to learn that there was a time when Logan was not a ubiquitous character with his name gracing multiple X-titles and pulling multiple duty in the Avengers and dozens of recurring guest appearances all across the Marvel Universe). I suppose I was  a Marvel guy by default, because I couldn’t tell you who was pulling creative chores on Batman, Superman or the Justice League in those days (though I remember enjoying the hell out of some borrowed ’70s Batman issues when Marshall Rogers was doing the pencils–best presentation of the modern, super-psycho Joker up to that point).

So it wasn’t until recently, when my parents mailed me a boxful of the old comics they’d been carting from house to house for me for the last three decades, that it struck me that there was another character I was evidently drawn to in those days, even though the writing and art in those books was mostly undistinguished, and other than Roger Stern and John Byrne, I’d be hard-pressed to recall who was writing them. But however you slice it, I’ve apparently been a fan of Captain America for a long-ass time.

Flipping through those brittle yellowing issues from the ’80s, some of which I can distinctly remember plucking from the spinner rack at the neighborhood Walgreen’s, already crumpled and well-past mint even then, the one thing that stands out now (and probably did even then, compared to those other titles I mentioned) is that they’re pretty lame. Uninvolving or utterly ridiculous stories with absurd enemies (Ameridroid, anyone?) and undistinguished writing and art. Sure, I suppose Steve Rogers traveling to merry old England to fight Nazi vampire Baron Blood within the walls of a castle (and ultimately beheading him with his shield) was exciting to my young mind, but it didn’t seem like a very intriguing adventure for a time-displaced supersoldier who traipses around literally draped in the American flag.

In the intervening years, as my political leanings evolved (I’m sure some fellow Texans from my past would say devolved) into a diehard leftist “question authority” stance, Cap became an antiquated symbol of patriotic nationalism, the Boy Scout in blue whose flag-waving rhetoric seemed representative of everything I couldn’t stand about knee-jerk conservative “real American” values. Of course, this was patently unfair, considering he’d rarely been written or portrayed as a jingoistic propagandist in his modern incarnation, even if that was what he was created to be in the early “simpler times” of WW2. If anything, he came across like a staunch old school progressive, a protector of the poor and downtrodden, proudly teaming up and sharing a title with one of the first black superheroes in the racially charged ’70s.

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Still, among the subset of people I ran around with in those days, a guy branded Captain America registered as patently unhip, and when held up against the dark psychology of Bruce Wayne, the troubled, tragic life of Matt Murdock, or the constantly careening rollercoaster of the X-men’s interpersonal dynamics, how interesting was the hopelessly idealistic upholder of old-fashioned American values–even if they were legitimately the best of what America’s values were meant to be? Add to that a costume, with its chainmail shirt and buccaneer boots, that was in serious need of an upgrade it wouldn’t get until the early 21st-century, in Mark Millar’s “Ultimates” series (and thankfully the solo Cap movies, which took their cue for costume inspiration, if not Cap’s more assholish behavior, from those titles), and Cap was unironically retro, possessing all the dimensions and depth of a crepe.

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Cut to 2011, when I was in the depths of two things, one that almost destroyed me, and one that helped pull me out of the abyss, believe it or not. On the one hand, I was several years into an unplanned and utterly surprising addiction to prescription painkillers (not prescribed to me; I drove around to seedy apartments and residence hotels as part of my “doctor shopping”), and in the midst of a reawakening of my love for comics in general and superhero adventuring in particular. I was lucky enough to get introduced to the work of Ed Brubaker, whose dark-hearted and tragically delicious “Sleeper” was just the kind of grounded-yet-fantastical tale of espionage and betrayal in the margins of a superpowered universe that would ignite my troubled brain. My friend Rodney Ascher, who loaned me the books, described it quite accurately as “The Departed with superheroes.” It had all the edge of Miller’s early “Sin City” stories (and a lot of the rough-edged misogyny as well), but was far less trite in its pulp indulgences. It may have helped–or hurt–that I was reading it during a period of mind-cracking insomnia brought on by the hell I was playing with my brain and body as I overindulged and then went through physical withdrawal from the opiates I couldn’t seem to stop ingesting on a near-daily basis (in fact, the only thing that ever stopped me during that time was running out altogether–hence the withdrawals).

Even as one addiction was nearing its bitter conclusion, another one was rising to take its place, and thanks to Ed Brubaker, I was back on the comics teat all over again, realizing “Hey, this Sleeper/Criminal/Incognito guy is not only really great, he’s the same guy who wrote that Death of Captain America/Winter Soldier arc everyone was crowing about a couple years back. Maybe I need to look into this.” And so I snapped up as many trade volumes of Brubaker’s run up to that point as I possibly could, and pored over them in opiate-addled ecstasy, feeling for maybe the first time ever like here was someone who really got this character, placing Cap in a paranoid conspiracy espionage thriller with lots of great action set pieces, sly humor (I especially loved how often his heroes muttered “Ouch!” after taking a spill or a beating that would leave an everyday human broken and comatose), over the top weirdness, callbacks to previous adventures, copious flashbacks to his days in the war, and satisfying arcs for his deep bench of recurring and regular characters, both friends and enemies alike. The Ameridroid was, mercifully, left off the table (for a long while anyway. Sigh.). I was hooked into the world of a mainstream superhero comic like I had not been since I read Marvels fifteen years before.

That same summer, Captain America: The First Avengers hit theaters, and while many would rate it as one of the MCU’s lesser “first wave” flicks, it hit me right in the sweet spot. I loved that they didn’t just cram his origin and WW2 background into the first third or even half of a more conventional superhero movie, but went for a full-on sepia-toned period piece. This displayed a surprising level of confidence in not just Cap, but all of their franchises, and the wide array of stories they could tell and the tones they could use to tell them. I was a sucker for the poignant portrayal of the scrawny kid with the huge heart and all the suggestive details of the Marvel Universe yet to be (the original Human Torch, the early repulsors on Howard Stark’s ill-fated flying car, the rise of Hydra and the feints toward the fate of Bucky) and the very earthy portrayals by several first-rate actors (Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci in particular imbued their characters with respective amounts of grit and soul) and an underrated and very low-key performance from Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. I loved the shorthand Joe Johnston and the film’s writers used to show his smarts (pulling the pin on the flagpole to lower and capture the flag and earn the ride back to camp in the jeep), his bravery (the “live grenade” scene) and his determination (“I can do it! I can do it!” when they try to shut down the experiment for fear it’s killing him). While Robert Downey, Jr. gets the showy, flashy fun role as Tony Stark (and nails it), Evans had to do something far less blatantly crowd-pleasing and potentially thankless, and make us love this shy, quiet, noble and even occasionally hokey kid. For me, he did it. Post-transformation, I knew I loved the movie even harder when we were treated to the USO musical montage of the cheesy-costumed Cap stumping for war bonds across the country. And seeing him carry the old-style shield into battle his first time out, and the functional, utilitarian take on the classic uniform with its muted colors and worn leather belts and pouches. Cap firing a gun, like soldiers do, not looking like someone who was shooting just to wound. Cap fighting the motherfucking Red Skull on screen forty feet tall and not looking like the whole thing was filmed for Saturday morning television. I thought it was a smart, sweetly nostalgic, appropriately badass, take on this particular origin story, as much an homage to old movie serials as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and superior to ANY of that classic film’s disappointing sequels). And on top of all that, because of the very nature of that origin, the movie had permission to be gently tragic in the end, with Cap’s “death” over the Arctic proving real enough for the people who had to live the next 75 years under the assumption that he was dead, and the love of his life lost forever to time.

I won’t go into all the details of how my addiction caught up to me and nearly brought my whole world crashing down, because I don’t want to write a book-length ramble here, but I will say that when it finally did, and I had to throw myself into the program, a sworn atheist in a world of Higher Powers, it took me awhile to settle on one. And when I did, at first it was strictly ironic. If I had to give thanks, praise and power to a fictional character, it might as well be one I genuinely loved and respected. Besides, you’d be amazed how neatly “Cap” fits into all kinds of places, like, “Cap, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” or “I humbly asked Cap to remove my shortcomings…” But as time wore on, in that way that it do, I started to realize that my ironic choice actually made a lot of sense for me. Because at his best, in the hands of Brubaker or screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, I realized how much me and the old dinosaur of the Marvel universe have in common. We’re both bruised idealists, with ideas about how we think the world should be that are often damaged, if never quite destroyed, when they run up against the harsh realities of the way the world really is. Now, it’s not an entirely fair comparison, because I’ve definitely succumbed to cynicism, pessimism, and depression in my life and I haven’t been through half the shit he has, and those are sentiments he only rarely allows himself. For Cap, despair is the feeling that comes when it seems that all is really, hopelessly lost. Then again, like me, he’s almost always proven wrong at the last possible moment. So his bottom’s a lot lower than mine, so what? Guy’s fictional!

While people of a certain stripe write him off as all those things a mentioned before–blindly patriotic, ossified and old-fashioned, without all the self-doubt and darkness that makes our modern heroes so “complex” and “interesting”–the fact is, he’s the kind of patriot who will question his country to its face and to its core, because he believes so strongly in the ideals and the dream of what this place could be if everyone could just set ideology aside long enough to realize we all need the same things–food, love, friendship, security, a sidekick and a vibranium shield. For an old fart whose last memory is from the mid-’40s, he’s proven surprisingly adaptive, engaged and resourceful when it comes to assimilating into the modern world (just look at the mixed martial arts fighting styles he’s picked up in “The Winter Soldier,” not to mention his carefully tended list of things to explore and discover). And while he’s not a troubled neurotic like Batman or an arrogant alcoholic like his pal Tony Stark, he’s well-stocked with plenty of righteous anger, moments of soul-deep disappointment, and there’ll always be that hint of the wounded weakling lingering inside, the powerless kid who can’t fight back no matter how hard he tries.

I think if my Higher Power can’t be a genuine Godlike being in the heavens above, but more of a symbolic aspirational higher self, the best me I could possibly wish to be, and the embodiment of a possibly unattainable but still worthy ideal, even if I don’t have the supersoldier serum to get me there, Cap is as good a choice as I could probably hope to make.

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