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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Mangold Paints His Masterpiece: A Spoiler-free Review of Logan

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I was going to title this “Holy Fucking Shit! I Just Saw ‘Logan’!” or words to that effect.

But I went a different way.

“Elegaic” is not a word I ever thought I’d be using to describe a movie set in the 20th Century Fox take on the X-Men Universe. I remember sitting in a theater seventeen years ago thinking, “Wow, that’s a better X-Men movie than I ever thought I’d get to see in my lifetime. And that Hugh Jackman guy’s a pretty okay Wolverine. He’s not the ‘Jack Nicholson circa The Shining version of Logan I dreamed of when I read these funny books in the early ’80s, but he’ll do.” I figured he’d do his three movies and be done, y’know?

wolverine-hugh-jackman.jpgA lot has happened in the intervening years since the X-Men ushered in the modern era of superhero filmmaking, for better and for worse, in my life and theirs. Rollercoaster highs and lows, creative swings for the fences and indifferent franchise regurgitations, big money hits and narrative misses. While Disney/Marvel became the fire-breathing synergy dragon, completely upending the idea of what a megafranchise could be, Fox’s X-movies stumbled in and out of the shadows, scrambling not just to keep their licensing rights but to put a creative foot down and do a little territorial pissing of their own. And while Chris Nolan was bringing dour seriousness to Batman to a degree that made it seem like he was slightly embarrassed to be associating with a comic book world, James Mangold was trying to make contemporary Westerns (Copland, 3:10 to Yuma) that felt important, even if they weren’t. But I’ll be damned if he and Jackman haven’t beaten everyone at their own game and made, if not the greatest superhero comic book movie of all time, just a goddamn great movie that happens to be about superpowered people (but is really about aging, mortality and the importance of love and family in giving meaning to a chaotic life). Seriously, Logan makes The Dark Knight look like a Porky’s sequel.

This is Mangold’s Unforgiven meets Children of Men with some No Country for Old Men and Mad Max: Fury Road for good measure, and not just because those films could be counted as influences, but because I left the theater with the same feeling those movies gave me-I just watched a masterpiece. A perfectly controlled piece of smart, propulsive, thoughtful, philosophical, near-perfect storytelling. A movie that was “about something,” while in no way shying away from being a terrific piece of comic book-inspired pop entertainment. A movie drenched in ’70s crime noir and post-modern Western mythology, but also populated with cyborg bounty hunters and borderline feral adorable badass murder children.

LOGAN, Dafne Keen, 2017. ph: Ben Rothstein/TM & copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights

It’s like Alexander Graham Bell never existed in whatever perfect dimension this movie got made in, so no one could phone anything in. The script, first and foremost, is just fantastic. Every line actually means something. It’s all there for a reason. This is capital F for Fuck Yeah Filmmaking where it all matters to everyone involved and they’re taking it seriously because they love it and themselves and you.

The dialogue is great, and not only that, it never feels like it’s just there because that’s what a scriptwriting formula says you have to put in between the big action set pieces. In fact, sometimes it feels like the big action set pieces are just kinda there to sew together all the important scenes of people talking, revealing, misunderstanding and bonding, while they contemplate their histories and sort out their existential dread. And in case you miss my meaning, those action set pieces are INCREDIBLE, and as crucial to the story as anything else that happens.logan-trailer-2-image-9

And the acting is soooo good. Patrick Stewart should be up for some of those awards-type things (he won’t, because we all live in the Darkest Timeline). The young actress who plays X23, Dafne Keen, is a fuckin’ revelation. If George Lucas had looked this hard for his Anakin we’d still be kissing his ass to make more Star Wars movies. Hell, if Abrams had shown this much love for any of the franchises he inherited and got to play with, we’d want him to own all the sandboxes.

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Stephen Merchant kills it so hard as Caliban (a character I never even read a book or story about) that I retroactively wish he’d always been around in the X-movies because I love Caliban so much now. Boyd Holbrook (from Netflix so-so Narcos series) is so great as the bad guy he made me forget Tom Hiddleston’s name for a second. As is Richard E. Grant (from Withnail and I!) as another bad guy who brings so much to a two dimensional character you almost forget you’re supposed to hate him.

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And as for Jackman, well, the only other character/actor I can think of that’s been through this kind of narrative ringer–starting strong, getting dragged through some creative mud and raked over some narrative coals–only to finish up on a high note is maybe Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Creed. But he wasn’t even the main protagonist of that movie! Other than that, there’s no one, not Connery or anyone else as James Bond, not even Harrison Ford as Han Solo, who’s been able to take a franchise character to a place like this and against all possible odds leave on a note so high it’s almost painful in its perfection. And over the course of two decades he had to do a lot of just, y’know, showing up and being Wolverine when they asked him to to get to be able to really do one that did and said everything he could with the character.

It’s hard to even wrap my head around the idea that Mangold and Jackman took their inspiration from that piece of shit Mark Millar graphic novel Old Man Logan. This is the realization of the promise that title teased me with, and where Millar shamelessly aped the moves of Eastwood Westerns and layered it with post-apocalypse grotesquerie, these guys throw every genre in the blender and take it for a heady spin.

old-man-loganI could just be swimming in the pink cloud of post-orgasmic movie-joy afterglow, but not only were there little to none of the “third act problems” that plague even some of my favorite movies in this genre (I’ve watched Winter Soldier at least ten times and I’m still not sure why making everything go ‘splodey-‘splodey over downtown D.C. is the best solution there), I’m not sure this movie had problems at all.

It comes on strong, gives itself room to breathe in the middle, and totally sticks the landing, while retroactively making 17 years of ups and downs in X-moviemaking all seem more significant just by association. It’s almost absurd that it exists, and for an aging nerd like myself, it’s super-gratifying that it does.
See the living fuck out of it.
Yesterday.

Review: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

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In a publishing world where we authors of a certain stripe are frequently told that there’s just no market for superheroic prose, it’s both heartening and frustrating when a work like this one manages to wend its way through the traditional distribution channels. Heartening because, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or The Violent Centuryit’s another testament to the fact that using a superpowered comic book backdrop is not only resonant to audiences well-versed in these tropes, it’s actually marketable! Frustrating because, well, most of us who write this kind of stuff would love to be in Manuel Gonzalez’ shoes, receiving legit literary attention for our exercises in subgenre. Hell, Gonzalez already has a movie deal, with Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland renown signed on to helm a bigscreen version.

Personal bitterness aside, though, I have to admit this one hit me in my sweet spot. Whatever its merits as capital L Literature, it’s a rollicking ride that’s equal parts thrilling, grim and hilarious. It contains homages to and elements of everything from Die Hard to Minority Report to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as sharp, glancing references to the many science fictional, magickal and fantastical devices familiar to comics readers from the Silver Age through the Dark Age and right up to whatever Age we’re in currently.

If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Gonzalez’ novel concerns itself with the events surrounding an all-out assault on the headquarters of a mysterious organization dedicated to combatting the Dark Forces that are Amassing to Threaten our World. But the shadowy Regional Office is not a top secret governmental branch or an ancient order that’s been operating since the dawn of time; rather it’s a privately funded operation fronting as a high-end travel agency, and founded by a couple of lifelong friends–Mr. Niles and his superpowered crush object Oyemi–involving future-predicting Oracles and a vast network of mainly gorgeous badass female assassins, recruited–and sometimes abducted–from trailer parks, shopping malls, and high schools all over the country.

Bouncing between past and present, and far-flung locations from Texas to New York to a neighboring dimension, we learn the story of a couple of such recruits: Rose, a smalltown girl with a go-nowhere life and an inherent knack for mayhem; and Sarah, a fairly ordinary if high-strung woman with a tragic backstory and a mechanical arm. Their destinies are set on a collision course when a couple of disgruntled Regional Office employees decide to repay disappointment and betrayal with the titular attack.

Whether you’re into the superpowered subgenre or not, The Regional Office is just a really fun, page-turning read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, brimming with a drily sarcastic millennial wit that offsets the sometimes shocking moments of intrigue, danger and violence. But neither is it a constantly campy jokefest or all satire and no substance. Gonzalez gives us just enough, at least with a few of his characters, to raise the stakes and shape them into human beings to be fascinated with (if never to quite root for). Many things are sketched in or unexplained–i.e., we never learn why the Office recruits only women to their cause–and in a few cases that’s frustrating (we never discover one character’s actual fate, despite a few suggestive hints), and  I can’t help wonder if Gonzalez wanted to leave things open-ended enough for a sequel or three. But the narrative filigree he uses to sketch out his world is right in my wheelhouse–warlocks in Kansas, interdimensional field ops, nanotech with a mind of its own. In my own superhero prose, I take great pleasure in dropping those kinds of high concept notions into casual conversation or interior monologue, the suggestion of a wider, wilder world often more tantalizing than a fully committed plunge into all of its depths.

Gonzalez is a terrifically entertaining writer, his one notable weakness for me an over-reliance on a singular snark-drenched voice; whether he’s in Rose’s head or Sarah’s, crafting long passages of a fictitious academic research paper on the attack and its aftermath, or putting us in the heads of hapless hostages during the siege, the point of view and offhandedly chatty tone remain almost too consistent. But despite these quibbles and a couple of narrative dead ends and unrealized ideas, The Regional Office is Under Attack passes this reader’s ultimate litmus test: I kinda wish I’d written it myself.

Blood, Guts and Brains

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“Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” first came to my attention thanks to “States of Terror” editor/publisher Matt Lewis. Considering I wrote a story about the Florida skunk ape for volume two of that collection, I was instantly intrigued to hear about Adam Howe’s “Damn Dirty Apes,” the first of three novellas in this book. It’s a twisted, pulpy Southern gothic adventure tale peopled with backwoods pornographers, ape-centric biker gangs, cryptid-hunting eccentrics, and a damaged-but-unbroken ex-prizefighter at the center of it all. It caroms from grim brutality to cartoonish otherworldly violence while rarely pausing for breath, and there’s a strong sense that Howe’s introducing one of those gruffly likable protagonist who could keep on having these kinds of reluctant adventures for years to come (and since there’s a sequel novel on the way, I may not be too far off in that guess).

The shortest of the three, “Gator Bait,” is a horror noir that’s equal parts James M. Cain and Stephen King in its Prohibition-era tale of a piano-playing ladies’ man forced to go on the lam after getting the drop on a cuckold bent on ending his adulterous days. Of course, stumbling into a new gig at a swampy roadside honkytonk run by a dangerous bootlegger with a gorgeous battered wife can only lead one way for the hapless ivory-tickler, no matter how often he claims to have sworn off the dames. Especially if the alligator in the pond out back has a say in the matter.

Throughout both of these Southern-fried tales, so steeped in the language and specifics of 20th-century hardboiled Americana, it’s easy to forget that Howe’s a Brit by birth. The stories read quick, funny and fun, with that enviable combination of smart satisfying wordplay and evocative imagery, yet with nary a wasted or extraneous word.

But the one that really grabbed me by the nards and wouldn’t let go is the one that gives the book its title. Unlike the other two tales, which are occasionally crude or violent but essentially accessible, “Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” is one I would not recommend to the even vaguely squeamish. Easily the best horror movie I’ve read in ages, the less I say about its hardcore horror conceit the better, as I don’t want to spoil the immensely satisfying twists and turns it takes with its simple but brilliant “dammit why didn’t I think a that?!” premise.

Suffice to say, fans of old school pulp with a postmodern twist, over-the-top action-adventure lovers, and sick fucks who enjoy stories with as much brains as blood and guts will all find something to love inside Howe’s twisted little worlds.

Rednecks & Pigskin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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