My buddy Mark Simon, who does storyboards for The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, and a bunch of other cool shows, put together this animatic of the opening sequence for my TV pilot adaptation of The Villain’s Sidekick. I think it’s kinda fun.
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?
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.
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).
Maybe I was just seduced by the tantalizing marketing, but up until very recently, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad marked the first time I was genuinely excited about an upcoming DC/Warner Bros. property since at least The Dark Knight. Critical response, and feeling pretty burned by Green Lantern and The Dark Knight Rises, was enough to keep me from experiencing Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Suckness in theaters, and watching them later on home video did neither film any favors. If the BvS director’s cut was really the more coherent version of that story, I can’t imagine the mess laid at the feet of those of you who did deign to watch it on the big screen. Not only was that movie all over the place, tonally and plotwise, but the behavior of its so-called “heroes” made the impending “get ready to root for the bad guys” aspect of Suicide Squad seem almost redundant.
But it’s exactly that Dirty Dozen with Supervillains concept that had me hooked early in regards to the Squad. After all, as my own book The Villain’s Sidekick and its sequels ought to prove, I’m a sucker for a supervillain redemption story. Full disclosure: I never read John Ostrander’s seminal ’80s run and in fact only really got drawn in to the book by Ales Kot’s brief sojourn with the team from a few years back. In many ways, though, it’s that version of the team that is reflected in the movie version, so between that, the intriguing portrayal of Task Force X on a few episodes of Arrow’s high-point second season, and the animated Assault on Arkham (far and away my favorite of the DC animated films so far, and unlike Ayer’s film, deserving of a strong R rating), I felt pretty primed for the big-screen adaptation.
I was able to ignore the more irritating details of Jared Leto’s fratboy-on-crack on-and-off-set behavior, the stories of panicky post-Deadpool/BvS reshoots and other potential red flags coming out of the geek press and just focus on the stellar trailers (hoping as usual that all the best gags and plot points weren’t being revealed with every teaser and TV spot). But then the reviews started to roll in and it felt like BvS all over again. “Cool your jets, fanboys,” those reviews seemed to say, “not only is Suicide Squad not all that, it’s pretty much a digital shit-show.” I had the sinking feeling I’d only ever watch it half-distracted in a late-night on-demand viewing.
Well, praise be to the God of Managed Expectations, because I went ahead and took the plunge with a couple of ten-year-olds in tow, and much to my surprise, the movie that unfolded in front of me was almost exactly what I’d hoped for/expected when I first saw those high-energy trailers. It’s mostly a light-hearted, fleet-footed action-comedy romp with terrific performances, particularly from the luminous Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and a let’s-have-fun-again Will Smith as Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton. I also thoroughly enjoyed what the underserved Jai Courtney, who I usually find quite bland, brought to Captain Boomerang (who would guess that he’s a better actor when he’s allowed to play a born Australian?), and likewise Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s very earthy Cajun take on Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones, whose brown velour pimp hoodie may be my favorite costume detail in the whole movie. Critics and more than a few fans have complained about the extended “intro” sequences for most of the core characters, but I found that this first act moved with the rhythm and style of a comic book, embracing that energy in a very similar manner to the much-loved Deadpool.
A major complaint about this film, much like Bvs, has been its purported incoherence, but I found it to be pretty streamlined, easy to follow (maybe even a bit simplistic) and moved from A to Z without a lot of unnecessary filler. Was character development sacrificed here and there to keep the story bulldozing ahead? No doubt. I would have loved to know a little more about Croc’s inner life, and the significance of Boomerang’s stuffed unicorn. Did the Joker sequences detract from the main story to a degree that rendered them all-but-superfluous? Abso-freakin’-lutely. It didn’t help that Leto’s performance was so hammy that he left the scenery sticky with his saliva; he ‘s earned his seat at the horshoe-shaped table in a Legion of Doomed Characterization alongside Jesse Eisenberg’s equally ridiculous take on Luthor. Was the hypersexualized male-gaze nature of Harley’s portrayal problematic? A case could most certainly be made, but I still enjoyed everything from Robbie’s off-kilter line deliveries to the way she frequently allowed the broken woman to peek out from behind the stream of sassy banter. (SPOILER AHEAD) Could they have given Slipknot maybe one more thing to do than just die without making an impression? Yes, dammit. I’m not some gigantic Adam Beach fan or anything, and I don’t even know who Slipknot is, but the poor guy deserves better than what he got.
Probably the most disappointing aspect from a story perspective is that, much like so many of these comic book movies, the Big Bad is a bit of an underwritten disappointment, though the connection between Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) at least gave his subplot some emotional momentum. And yes, the fact that our anti-heroes have to save the world from a big cross-dimensional laser-pointer aimed at the sky was an unkind reminder of The Avengers’ third-act problems, but again, that’s a frequently committed sin, and the short-sightedness of rarely allowing these films to have even slightly smaller-scale problems. Part of what worked so well for me in Civil War was that the final confrontation came down to three guys in a room tearing each other apart because one wounded man wanted to make it happen. But in the end, the Squad’s final confrontation wasn’t any more preposterous than the climax of Hellboy II, and I’ll watch the hell out of that movie just about any time.
I’m not saying rush out and see it, because I don’t want to shoulder the blame if you hate it as much as so many others seem to, but for my money, I got my Dirty Dozen with Supervillains, and in the end, the Squad proved to be much less reluctant, much less disturbing, and significantly more entertaining heroes than those cape-clad mopes in that other big DC release.
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.
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 Sidekick. Now 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 Conundrum, which 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.
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.
“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.
It’s been nearly two years since I first published The Villain’s Sidekick, and while I’d much rather be pushing the sequel by now, it’s been a bit more of an undertaking than I anticipated, so for purposes of trying to keep interest alive for the stuff that’s already out in the world, I’m throwing a little 2nd anniversary party for Villain’s. As such, for anyone out there who hasn’t read it, the Kindle Edition will be on sale for the mere pittance of .99c starting Friday Sept. 4th and continuing through Sept. 11.
As such, I did a little promotional interview with the e-reader targeted online publication, Book Reader Magazine and figured what the hell? Why not share it here and fill up some blogspace in the bargain?
Featured Interview With Stephen T. Brophy
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, which I ended up choosing as the setting for my first novella, The Villain’s Sidekick, even though I haven’t lived there in years. I left Texas after college and settled for a good long while in San Francisco, where I landed my first paid writing gig after many years working below my abilities in restaurants and cafes and the like. Once bitten, I couldn’t go back to those day jobs, so my girlfriend (now wife) and I relocated to Los Angeles a few years back. We now have a pretty amazing son and two wonderful, tragically aging dogs, a neurotic Lab mix and a pit bull/boxer.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I was born to two voracious readers, so the love of reading was instilled from about as early as I can remember. I actually had a little difficulty learning to read but once I got it, I took to it like a Great White shark to a helpless sea lion, and within very short order I was bored with kiddie lit and moving on to grown-up books. I remember reading “Jaws” when I was 8 years old (hence the shark reference) after being so enthralled by the movie. So, fittingly enough, when I started writing, my first book was entitled “Jaws,” and involved a shark who could walk on land (SNL had just started airing around that time, too, so dual influences at work). I wrote a lot of derivative stuff until I found my own “voice.” Which is really probably just a mash-up of all the authors and stories I’ve encountered and loved ever since.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
My favorite genres are science fiction (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, John Brunner, Ramez Naam), crime fiction (James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard), and the literature of the dissolute (Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Don Delillo). They’ve all equally inspired what I do now. But the biggest influence over the last few years–and at my age maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m so not–has been a rekindled love of comics, from weird indies to straight up mainstream superhero fare. I’d read them off and on since adolescence, but when a friend introduced me to Sleeper by Ed Brubaker, and I went on to read his Captain America stuff, I became more immersed than I’d ever been. In fact, I’d been kind of stuck on a science fiction story I was telling and it was only when I got the inspiration that I could include superpowered characters and take it to a more interesting, liberating place. Since then, I’ve read a LOT of superhero prose fiction–basically comic books without the pictures, I guess, but so much more, too–like Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible,” Jim Bernheimer’s “Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, Rafael Chandler’s “The Astounding Antagonists,” Blake Northcott’s “Arena Mode” series and on and on. It’s really a whole terrific genre just waiting to be discovered by the mainstream. And with the current popularity of superheroes in film, it seems just a matter of when.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
I’ve written two novellas featuring my alter-ego, Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, a supervillain’s henchman with a machine gun arm, a steel jaw, an ex-wife who used to do crimes with him before the birth of their adorable precocious daughter, and all the troubles that go with being a semi-reformed bad guy in a 12-step program who may be harboring a hero beneath his frightening exterior. He’s basically the distillation of all that Bukowski, Jim Thompson and William Gibson I mentioned up top. There’s The Villain’s Sidekick and it’s short prequel, The Eternity Conundrum, and I’m currently working on a full-length sequel, Citizen Skin. The sequel alternates POVs from chapter to chapter between HandCannon and his badass best friend Trista Brooks, also known as Nightguard. She’s a supporting character in Villain’s who steps large on the stage in the follow up.
This guy, am I right?
I’ve never been a big Spider-Man reader, so my awareness of the character Herman “Shocker” Schultz–frequent Sinister Six member in reasonably good standing and a Spidey foe for pretty much as long as I’ve been alive–was dim at best before I read Superior Foes of Spider-Man. In that fantastic series, Herman makes a fateful decision that leads him and the other five members of the Six (if that doesn’t seem to add up, just read Superior Foes, dammit!) down a path that could spell doom for all of them. But in the end, out of everybody, it’s the Shocker (whose only superpower is the shock-resistant suit and vibration gauntlets he built in prison, because he’s actually kind of a genius even though he doesn’t know it) who pulls out a big win when he single-handedly takes down…well, why should I spoil it for you?
It was my childhood friend and brother from another mother Jeff Coleman who turned me on to Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men and Dave Sims’ Cerebus when they were the freshest things on the spinner rack, and thus inspired my lifelong dalliance with comics. He’s also the artist responsible for the 3D rendition of HandCannon that graces the top of this blog. He recently stumbled across a terrific piece of fan fiction that basically answers the question “what would The Villain’s Sidekick be like if I’d written it using licensed Marvel characters?”
Shocker: Legit, written entirely on spec, or for fun, by Max Landis (son of filmmaker John Landis, screenwriter of the found footage superhero flick Chronicle) concerns itself with what might happen if Herman Schultz were to grow weary of being a punching bag for metahuman crimebusters like Spider-Man and try his hand at doing the hero thing himself. He gets his first opportunity when he comes across the Hulk-ish Ravage running riot in downtown Manhattan and manages, through grit, determination, and some dumb luck, to take the monster down.
During this encounter, he gets an unexpected assist from Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy, who becomes his unlikely ally as they uncover a vast conspiracy involving a company called First Person Shooter that allows regular, high-paying citizens to operate mind-controlled supervillains and use them to wreak real-world havoc as if the actual death, destruction and carnage were all some kind of virtual reality game. And that’s just the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg. Meanwhile, Felicia becomes an even more unlikely love interest for the embattled Herman.
It’s not hard to see why (and for the record, I had to search far and wide to find an image of Black Cat that made her look like the badass she is in this story, rather than the hypersexualized fantasy figure she’s usually portrayed as). No sooner do they start investigating this dark conspiracy than they are the targets of not only the drone-operated super baddies, but mercenaries for hire like Bullseye and the Enforcers, and while Herman and his crew manage to beat the odds time and again, they are well-brutalized for their troubles–in addition to repeated nose-breakings, contusions, lacerations, stabbings and shootings, at one point Herman loses an ear. A fuckin’ ear!
The story’s not perfect. Considering it’s fan fiction, there’s an impression from the typos, occasional grammar mistakes and tense switches, and a few places where small but crucial bits of information seem to be missing, that you’re reading a first draft. And considering it’s unsolicited fan fiction, one can’t really fault Landis for not going back and fixing it all for our consumption. Plus, it compensates with a pretty ingenious story, a smorgasbord of well-placed Marvel character cameos, and an extremely likable, relatable take on its accidental protagonist.
I’m not exactly sure when Landis wrote it–my best guess is that it’s from sometime in the mid-oughts–but what struck me right away, from the first page, was how stylistically similar it is to Villain’s, Confessions of D-List Supervillain and other works in this subgenre (bad guy/henchman goes good) of a subgenre (superhero narrative fiction). Like my own book, it concerns a street-level goon with self-esteem and anger issues whose abilities are purely technological; it’s first person present tense, highly comedic without resorting to parody, and as loaded with heart as it is with violence and insanity. Especially touching, along with Herman and Felicia’s love affair, is his equally unexpected friendship with this guy:
Landis’ and Herman’s portrayal of Rhino is as a not-always-gentle giant with a heart of gold and the mind of a child. He’s simple, sweet-natured, capable of terrific destruction but loathe to hurt innocents or civilians even as their war heats up. Again, I haven’t read enough Spidey to know how accurate this portrayal really is, but it works well here, providing another sympathetic layer to Herman as he looks out for his big loyal lug of a buddy.
Along the way, Herman scores some more unlikely admirers and allies in a quest for truth that leads to some (emotionally as well as physically) uncomfortable places: Reed Richards and Tony Stark marvel at the genius of his prison-created suit and power gauntlets and begin to treat the low-level schemer as an intellectual equal…
…and after an extremely unpleasant initial encounter, he even earns the grudging admiration of this taciturn motherfucker…
More than anything, for fans of this kind of stuff, which I obviously am, Shocker: Legit is just one of those unexpected treasures the internet coughs up every now and again that hits right in the sweet spot. Well worth a read. And the price is unbeatable.
These guys, am I right?
By now it’s a given that the Platinum Age of Television began on Jan. 10, 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos, when indie cinema sensibilities started trickling down into the storytelling on that “vast wasteland” people of a certain age used to call the Idiot Box. After that defining date, cable TV–both premium and basic–began to allow for a model that let tightly contained long-form narratives like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica (at its best anyway) Breaking Bad (and its so-far worthy successor Better Call Saul), Orange is the New Black and even The Walking Dead unfold over shorter seasons, without outstaying their welcome, and often telling stories as worthy of our time and attention as any Great American Novel or Important Awards-Baiting Film. The upside of this is more great entertainment at the click of a button. The downside is constant access to and constant replenishment of the narcotic that’s been my biggest bane since early childhood.
As we move further into the 21st century, a similar phenomenon is occurring in my other favorite serialized storytelling medium. In the funnybooks, the indie comics sensibility has made definite headway into the mainstream, allowing for a greater diversity of art styles, narrative approaches, creators and characters. This is probably most evident in one of Marvel’s most popular recently launched titles, Ms. Marvel, in which a teenage daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim herself develops superpowers. The subject of personal faith probably hasn’t been this front and center with a mainstream superhero since Daredevil’s Catholicism. But the book’s second boldest choices have less to do with featuring a Muslim female than with its choice to be irreverent, smart, and boundlessly interested in the lives of young urban people coming of age in a way that’s reminiscent of a basic cable dramedy. And the art style is reflective of that in a way that’s hip and indie without losing track of the fact that’s it’s set in the Marvelverse, intricate and detailed without being overly busy, cartoony without seeming juvenile.
Marvel seems to be leading the pack with this kind of book, letting writers and artists who’ve done great work in and out of the mainstream take a book and character and really put a strong creative stamp on them. Hawkeye would be another prime example, a book that felt like a wiseass character-driven cable action comedy series from the first issue, and that has made some of the boldest creative choices of any recent superhero book while keeping things on a mostly small, narrowly focused scale. The most acclaimed issue so far is an almost wordless noirish detective adventure told from the POV of Clint Barton’s recently adopted dog. It’s hilarious, clever, and a masterpiece of visual design.
Both of these books have received attention, acclaim, and whatever passes for reasonably strong sales in the current comics market, but by far my favorite book representing this trend toward smart, funny, indie explorations of the Marvel world seemed to slip through the cracks. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man just ended its run after a mere 17 issues. Granted, that was five more than its originally planned twelve, but when it got the initial extension, I imagine all involved were hoping for an ongoing. I was (and yet also wasn’t!) It’s a curse that’s also a blessing, in its way, because writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber were granted the freedom to make the book they wanted, and to give it a proper ending. In the past, in comics as in TV, this opportunity to close the loop was rarely afforded, and many books and arcs were left open-ended as their titles died on the vine. Much like a particularly satisfying show that ends while still at peak creativity (many of my friends kept whining for more Breaking Bad but I thought it ended right when it should), there’s plenty to be said for a short-run comic that sets out to tell a tight yet sprawling story and is able to do so within some nicely defined parameters, escaping the trap of treading water and giving in to mediocrity due to creator changeover or simple exhaustion.
Focusing on a new incarnation of the Sinister Six and pretty much eschewing Spider-Man altogether is a terrific choice, because from the title on down, it establishes these characters as the coattail hangers they are. Because this is not just a story about bad guys, it’s a story about losers, about the guys on the margin who are always being beaten down by the heroes, manipulated by the major players and big bosses, and left to fend for themselves when the shit goes down. They may have big dreams and big plans, but they will never be A-list baddies no matter how hard they try. It’s just not in the cards. Personally, having written my first book, The Villain’s Sidekick, about just such a guy, I am of course all about this. And I’m sure there’s a whole other level of fun for Spencer and Lieber just getting to play in this little corner of the Marvel sandbox, where they get to dream up lives and backstories and motivations and nuances for these characters that haven’t been considered or explored in their entire histories, which in the case of guys like Boomerang and Shocker runs to nearly half a century each. A key difference between my story and this one is that Spencer succeeds at keeping his anti-heroes very much on the wrong side of the law. There may be one–the more recently conceived Overdrive–who longs to flip from bad to good like Hawkeye or Scarlet Witch before him, but in the end it’s a pipe dream and he’s just another sorry schmuck whose life is defined by a long string of rotten luck and poor choices.
Many of Spidey’s more infamous gangster-type rogues and bosses put in appearances–from Tombstone, who’s daughter joins the new Sinister Six (who, it’s worth pointing out, only boast five members throughout the series, yet keep the name regardless), to the Owl, to Silvio Silvermane (who’s severed yet still chatty head is both a major McGuffin and constant thorn in the various characters’ sides). There are superfights and action sequences and occasional stakes, but this is really one of those books where it’s all about the largely comedic dialogue (and the amazing, perfectly complementary artwork, which is filled with clever gags of its own). Fred “Boomerang” Myers narrates the book, and despite his many machinations and double-crosses and general not-a-good-guy-ness, I found myself rooting for him to pull out some kind of small victory, even if it was the hollow win of a nefarious plan gone right for once. He frequently introduces a staple character with the dismissive eye-roll line: “This guy, am I right?” If you’re familiar enough with the Marvel stable, you’ll find yourself agreeing time and again.
And just to demonstrate that creating a fun book that asks you to root for the bad guys isn’t as easy as it might sound, I recently attempted to read the first volume of DC’s apparently popular Harley Quinn solo series. Also a comedic farce about a villain’s lackey, the words that came to mind while I tried to wade through it’s soup of moronic slapstick violence, terrible puns and cheap jokes was “hot garbage.” I think Harley’s a great character in the right hands, but this book seemed pitch at a level just south of adolescent. At one point, while she helps an aging cybernetic Federal agent (real name: Sy Borgman; hilarious…) snuff some Russian sleeper agents (who really don’t deserve their horrible, played-for-laughs deaths) they take out a female spy named, get this, Ivana Brekemoff. Again, hilarious! Right? No, me neither.
Suffice to say, if you enjoy the company of wiseass wannabes and amoral a-holes with wicked senses of humor and the scruples of a basement rat, if more than once in awhile you find yourself wondering what the henchmen are thinking, how they live, or what they do with their downtime, you could do a helluva lot worse than giving Superior Foes a shot.