Last Dance: The Tall Tale TV Audio Edition

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?

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Black Holes and Revelations

When I started this blog, it just seemed like a necessary move to kickstart my “web presence” in the wake of publishing my first book. I don’t tend this little thoughtspew garden as frequently as I assumed I would, because I am prone to sloth by nature and because I have a LOT of other shit to do most every day. Sitting down to journal is a luxury from a past life. I had forgotten how much I used to do it until I cracked open a trunkload of my old spiral diaries and faux-leather-bound notebooks , vigorously and desperately maintained from the mid- ’80s through the late ’90s, a wild minddump of my (pedestrian, suburban, naively whitebread, hopelessly adolescent) innermost feelings, scraps of poetry, false starts at novels and short stories and scripts, and my most significant creative outlet until I started writing in genuine earnest and eventually getting paid for it sometimes.

What surprised me, and in equal parts heartened and frustrated me as well, was that much of the writing, in spite of the sometimes pathetic, navel-gazing, fear-stunted subject matter, was actually pretty good, especially for a guy in his 20s. Heartening because I know that writing is hopelessly entwined with the strands of my very DNA, and frustrating because I didn’t have the werewithal, back in those long-lost floundering days, to see things through to completion and start making my mark in some small way when I burned with that youthful energy and helpless need to find a way to connect with the world. When I had all the time in the world with me and ahead of me. And there’s that part of me that can’t help pondering, however uselessly, how different my life might have been if I had just knuckled fucking down and done it. But then I remember how much I genuinely like, even love, my life as it is now and realize that it’s all okay, and I can forgive myself my mistakes and lapses and not let them freeze and paralyze me in place the way they evidently did when I was young. Because I still have all the time in the world, even if I do have less of it.

I don’t know why I stopped journaling, except maybe I felt less desperate and started looking out more than in, or maybe my laziness just manifested in some new way, but honestly, what is a blog but a journal for the whole world to see (well, let’s be realistic–for the few dozen of you who might even bother to read this). The fact is, I’m supposed to be journaling as part of my sixth step in recovery, but I’m not sure I’m ready to bore, disturb, or frighten you all with a litany of my defects of character.

But I do recognize that my entries here, from the first one, have functioned as a kind of confessional self-appraisal blended–with little to no nuance–with my pop cultural obsessions. So as I continue to focus and figure out what I’m doing here, I figure I’ll just stumble forward in that direction, and I’ll either alternate or find unusual, hopefully interesting, frequently hamfisted ways of confronting my recovery while continuing to talk about my process as a writer, what I’m putting out in the world–or attempting to– creatively, and espousing the genuine virtues of comics, graphic novels, science fiction adventure, superpeople and capepunkers.

There will be the aforementioned navel-gazing, the requisite “what to watch/read/listen to” suggestions, the occasional shameless plugs for my books when they’re on sale or on the verge of publication, and whatever else crosses my fevered, frenzied, sometimes inspired, often dog-tired brain.

And this being October, I might as well suggest some horror shit for you people to investigate at your leisure.

I probably don’t have to tell most of you that the “Walking Dead” premiere was as good an episode as that show has done–fast-paced, probably a little slim on genuine character beats except for Tyreese and Carol, but filled with action that bordered perilously and brilliantly close to cinematic. Also shied ferociously away from that show’s tendency to drag things out when it comes to settings and certain main characters’ old tendency to spend more time talking than surviving. This one managed to be brutal, tense, and had me cheering for Rick in a way that I have been since he bit that son-of-a-bitch’s throat out. I was worried he was on the verge of becoming Jack from “Lost,” but Sheriff Grimes is really coming into his own. And it even managed to end on a warm, upbeat note in a way this show almost never allows for, with all of our heroes finally together and moving as one. I hope they can maintain this kind of confidence in both narrative and character going forward. This show might finally be ready to become great.

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Speaking of WD, I started reading “Outcast” by the creator himself, Robert Kirkman, and artist Paul Azaceta and I gotta say, so far, so great. It’s about a lost soul with an apparent gift for exorcising demons, which is a good thing because they seem to be popping up pretty much everywhere in his world. Terrific art and intriguing characters. Definitely worth  a look.

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And finally, because I do have some of that other shit to do today, if you’re looking for some supremely weird and at times darkly funny low-budget horror, you could do worse than “The Banshee Chapter,” currently streaming on Netflix.

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This caught my interest when I learned that Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine from “Silence of the Lambs” and the amazing adenoidal voice and too many memorable character roles to count, was one of the stars. Only when I started watching did I realize that he was playing a Hunter S. Thompson analog (with savory dollops of Philip K. Dick mixed into the sauce) in a story about ill-advised MKUltra experiments involving a powerful psychedelic drug that opens a doorway to a very dark, Lovecraftian dimension. There are some “found footage” elements but it doesn’t stay stuck in that subgenre rut. It’s not easy to follow, but it’s fun to try and fathom what the fuck is going on. The acting is solid and Levine is amazing. Creep yourself out.

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And while this probably deserves to be a post all on its own, this weekend marks the third (fucking unbelievable) anniversary of the unexpected, tragic passing of my brother Michael. I have more thoughts and feelings around this than I can hope to process here or anywhere, but suffice to say he was special, wildly important to me and my family, and while I’ve found a place for my grief over the passing years, I still get frustrated, furious, and sloppily sad whenever it occurs to me (almost daily, really) that I will never get to share anything new with him ever again, and that he won’t be there to comfort me when the other inevitable tragedies of time befall me and the rest of my family. And while I was writing this post, this song came up on my iTunes. It’s a song that made me think of my siblings–for obvious reasons–from the first time I ever heard it, and I insisted it be played at his funeral as my way of saying goodbye. It’s called “Orange Sky” by Alexi Murdoch and I only recommend clicking if you’re in the mood to weep.

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.

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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