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?

Advertisements

The Good Fight Anthology Available for Pre-Order

tgf3ebookcover

A couple years back, I went Googling for ways to connect with other writers scribbling away in the strange little subgenre of superpowered fiction and came across The Pen and Cape Society, a consortium of like-minded scribes all aiming for the same thing–to shed a little more light and legitimacy on the stuff we love to create. They’re an invite-only group, so I kinda forced myself on them, hoping it would help me reach a wider audience and give me a chance to commiserate with my own kind. They were generous enough to deem me worthy, and now, with the imminent publication of the third Good Fight anthology I feel like I’m finally a full-fledged member.

I haven’t read any of the other stories in this collection as yet, but I have read the first two volumes  and they are terrific. I can’t imagine this one being a big step down in quality or anything. As for my fans, both of you should be thrilled to know that I’ve written yet another long-ish short prequel to The Villain’s Sidekickcalled The Henchman’s Apprentice. So if you ever wondered what HandCannon’s first real bad-guy job was like, how he adapted to his machine gun arm and other accoutrements, what kind of tacos he likes, his taste in drugs, and how his first kill went down, this is the place to read about it.

The official release date is March 21st, but The Good Fight, Vol. 3: Sidekicks is available for pre-order right freakin’ now.

Secret History: A Review of Lavie Tidhar’s “The Violent Century”

images

I know I’m a good writer. I’m also long-resigned to the truth that I’ll never be a great writer. Whatever literary merit my pulpy seriocomic adventure stories contain is largely the byproduct of having ingested enough canonically “great” literature that nanoscopic slivers of same will occasionally, mostly accidentally, sneak in between the many overwrought adjectives and adverbs of my purplish prose. Let me put it this way: if Stephen King is the self-described “Big Mac and fries of American literature,” I’m more like that slightly seedy neighborhood taco truck that a lot of people would avoid just on general appearance, but that an adventurous few would stumble across and consider a secret treasure.

For literary classicists and cultural gatekeepers, even in this enlightened postmodern age, it’s probably still hard to convince the bulk of them that any story containing superpowered people with offbeat costumes and absurd codenames could even aspire to literary merit. Sure, a few have tried, most notably Jonathan Lethem with his well-regarded Fortress of Solitudebut even Michael Chabon didn’t dare let Kavalier & Clay’s fictitious comic book creation, the Escapist, out into the real-world pages of his sprawling tale.

So kudos to Lavie Tidhar, who threw down the gauntlet when he published The Violent Century in early 2015. This is a swing-for-the-fences attempt at Big Idea literature double-wrapped in pulp genre, equal parts John Le Carre Cold War spy novel, Don Delillo-ish examination of cultural and political mores across the whole of the 20th century, and a healthy dose of Ed Brubaker’s The Marvels Project for good measure. Tidhar’s novel, as he describes it, is not alternate but “parallel” history, a world where powered Ubermenschen fought and spied alongside us through the major conflicts of the 20th century starting with World War II. But where a book like Watchmen shows us how the presence of supers drastically rewrites the landscape, technology and political climate of our world, Tidhars ubers have surprisingly little effect on the outcome, and reality more or less remains on track.

One of the dead giveaways that this book is taking itself, its themes, and even its supers seriously is evident the moment you start reading. Tidhar makes an unusual, at times confounding stylistic choice, to not set dialogue in quotation marks, or even break his paragraphs in a normal way. It’s easy enough to pick up on what he’s doing and mostly the story flows regardless, but at times it left me rereading a line once or twice to correctly assess who, if anyone, is speaking, and what sentence or clause is internal monologue or authorial voice. The motive for this mostly seems, to me, to be to set the book apart from a more straightforward novel, as if using a more conventional approach would render his story no more than airport newsstand fodder, Tom Clancy with caped crusaders. Whether or not this is the case, this kind of experimental gameplay with the “rules” of writing is a frequent tic of those with higher literary aspirations.

More than anything, Century is an espionage tale, not quite a thriller, but full of intrigue and betrayal and bait-and-switch, questionable moral decisions made in the service of a “greater good” or just pure self-interest. There are cloak-and-dagger field operatives, a handler known only as The Old Man whose motives are as questionable as his ethics, a damsel-in-need-saving, friends that turn enemy and vice versa, and some potentially colorful supporting and side characters, not to mention Russian, British and American superheroes and, most thrillingly, a Nazi werewolf and a Jewish vampire facing off in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. At times it’s exactly as entertaining as it sounds. At other times, it feels like a bit less self-seriousness could be taken with these big wild pulpy ideas.

While the novel is definitely an easily digestible page turner, with short chapters allowing for small bites until you can’t believe you ate the whole thing, and Tidhar’s prose is often quite lovely, the storytelling comes up short in the characters. The main protagonist is a former British intelligence officer/Ubermensch who goes by the name of Fogg (because he can control mists and clouds and such, y’see), and while we spend ample time with him and in his head, he never fully comes alive as a fleshed-out human being. His onetime partner, Oblivion (who can makes things vanish with a touch of his hands), gets even shorter shrift, and disappears for long stretches, as do most of the supporting characters. There’s a love story between Fogg and a young woman who might be the most powerful of all, but she is so thinly conceived and characterized it’s difficult to connect with the supposed depth of his feelings for her.

Likewise, Tidhar sprinkles in fascinating real-life historical figures like a young Alan Turing or Wernher von Braun, but doesn’t give them anything to do. I mean, if you’re going to drag as fascinating a 20th century figure as Turing into your story, at least give him one juicy moment that either propels the plot or sticks in the mind. The characterizations are so surface level, the book often reads more as pure allegory than gripping, globe-and-time-spanning epic. Which is fine, if you like allegory. Maybe I’m just too meat-and-potatoes when it comes to the narratives I’m drawn to, but the bulk of what I read, watch (and write) draws me in with a focus on well-written characters. A terrific premise and clever plot mechanics are all well and good, but I need a character I can hang my hat on while I take the ride. And while I don’t shy away from “challenging” reading, this isn’t that. It’s a pretty simple, possibly even flimsy tale that uses its genre trappings like curious adornments.

I’m still not entirely sure what Tidhar’s superpeople were meant to represent within this semi-conventional spy story framework. I think a deeper dive into their inner lives, and richer details in their relationships could have really helped. There’s an opaqueness to both motivation and action that left me wondering if I was missing something deeper, or applying profundity where it didn’t entirely exist. Case in point: despite their awesome elemental powers, characters frequently use guns, which makes sense against the backdrop of war and its aftermath, but also seemed to undercut both their abilities and the potential of the sparse action sequences. At one point, when using his eradication powers would seem to be the perfect solution, Oblivion instead chooses to strangle a man to death and dump his body. I was hoping there was significance to the choice, but in context it just seemed as if the author forgot his character could do that.

This probably all sounds more critical than it should. I enjoyed reading this (and might have enjoyed it as a graphic novel even more so), and honestly I don’t think I could even attempt what Tidhar has aimed for here. If I tried to render HandCannon a metaphor for male violence or the lingering damage of PTSD or anything much more profound than an aging enhanced thug with a redemption arc, I’d either get lost up my own ass or suffer failure-related panic attacks. So again, my hat is off to Tidhar for letting his Big Ideas share space with cleverly conceived super-powered do-gooders and do-badders. I just wish it was a little clearer in the end what the Big Ideas really were. While there’s a compelling, well-crafted story here, it’s a little bit like dining on $25 gourmet ceviche tacos and realizing you wish you’d just gone to the truck.

 

 

It Ain’t Shakespeare, but It’s Definitely Suicide Squad

SUICIDE SQUAD

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.

The Best of Marvel Lives in the Margins

-SpiderWoman-cover

First off, apologies to all three of my regular readers (okay, I’m probably inflating those numbers) for the inexcusably long break between blog posts. I’d like to say that life gets in the way most days, but the fact is, so does laziness. Yes, I’ve been churning out new fiction at a rate unheard of since the days when I did meth on the regular, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to find an hour a week, at the very least, to punch some keys and paste something here to justify maintaining a blog in the first place. I could make promises and claims to do better going forward, but I’ve done that before and much like all the times when I’d say I was going to quit smoking and then smoke twice as much in defiance of my own better angels, I’d probably just double down on the apathy and take a whole year off from here.

And it’s not like I don’t find inspiration everywhere, from stuff I’m reading to things I’m watching to the eternal tectonic shifts of dark reality, but every now and again I find a reason and a minute and all the stars line up and BAM, you guys get another blog post. You lucky fucks!

The unlikely source of today’s inspired ramblings is a comic book character I’ve rarely thought twice about, except whenever Comixology puts some of her books on sale and I see a writer’s or artist’s name attached that piques my interest. I’m talking, of course, about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Woman. I don’t know much about her historically as a character, except that she exists as the result of Hydra genetic experiments and not because she was standing at the back of the class and got bitten by the same radioactive spider as Peter Parker later that same day (there’s a whole other recently introduced character, Silk, with that origin, because comics!). I imagine she exists as a result of the same possibly craven motivation that’s given the world Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, She-Hulk, and various other gender-swapped variations on wildly popular superheroes. I don’t know if that impulse involves a desire to recruit more female readers and thinking that’s the best way, or if comics creators just wanted to craft versions of their power-fantasy figures they could daydream about having sex with after a super-battle (“That Spider-Man sure is dreamy–golly, if only he was a girl! Hey…!”).

Whatever their inauspicious origins, once these characters prove to have some lasting appeal, they inevitably fall into the hands of writers and artists who genuinely find them interesting, or at least seize the opportunity to do interesting things with characters who are perceived to be “second-tier.” That’s how you get books like J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s incredible “Batwoman” run, Babs Tarr and Cameron Stewart’s recent bestelling “Batgirl” revamp, “She-Hulk” in the hands of Dan Slott or Charles Soule, and now, Dennis Hopeless‘s excellent take on Spider-Woman.

spider-woman-5

Hopeless is a writer I’m not particularly familiar with, so if anything made me snap up digital copies of these books, it was Javier Rodriguez’s glorious artwork, which strikes the perfect balance of cartoony without going too broadly comical, realistic without belaboring the details, and enhanced with Alvaro Lopez’s fine-lined inking and Muntsa Vicente’s bright poppy colors. What that told me at a glance was that this book was going to be fun, embracing the inherently over-the-top silliness which is the only sane way for a grown-ass adult to approach and engage with a superheroic universe. The borderline indie-comic spirit put me instantly in mind of Fraction’s “Hawkeye,” the current “Ms. Marvel” and my much-loved “Superior Foes of Spider-Man,” all books that bring a kind of cable-series vibe and a much-deserved spotlight to some of the outliers of the Marvel Multiverse.

What I love about those other books, and indeed what I usually look for in a superhero book these days, is the way they engage with this preposterous reality from a fresh perspective, sneaking humor, humanity and even heart into the dialogue and character interactions, creating small relatable details that don’t interfere when the action gets big; in fact, they enhance it. I love stories that dig into unexplored nooks and crannies of the superpowered world, like who a D-list henchmen hangs out with in his downtime, or what an Avenger watches on cable on her nights off, or the consequences of sneaking out past your bedtime when you’re a hero who still lives with your parents. I also love to see an industry titan like Marvel upgrading its characters so that the “world outside your door” at least starts to look somewhat like the world outside mine. Making the new Ms. Marvel a Pakistani Muslim immigrant was an excellent step in that direction. Giving Jessica Drew a new costume that looks like something she picked out for herself, rather than had painted on against her will, is another. For a character that’s always been presented as a powerful, if conflicted, woman, she’s spent too many years in an outfit that rendered her a hypersexualized male fantasy figure rather than a legitimately self-empowered individual.

I’m not saying I hate this, because my Neanderthal lizard brain most certainly responds to it…

Sex-woman

…but this is way more practical, a whole lot cooler, and while I can’t necessarily picture my wife in it, I could at least imagine running into her somewhere…

SpiderladyContinuing this streak of real-world feminism and self-propelled sisterhood, Hopeless and Rodriguez craft a terrific story arc in which Jessica, now striking out on her own as a private detective, her time with the Avengers in the rearview mirror (for now), takes a keen interest in the cases of multiple missing women. All of these women–and some children–have one thing in common: they are the wives, girlfriends and significant others of a who’s-who of supervillains, henchmen, and assorted powered goons. Teaming up with the Daily Bugle’s hardest working investigative journalist, Ben Urich, and a third-tier criminal with a bad rep and a big heart with the unfortunate alias Porcupine, Jessica finds her way to an idyllic small town inhabited almost solely by women and children. As it turns out, an enterprising abuse survivor has established a kind of underground railroad for women who’ve been victimized by their good-for-nothing, often psycho costumed spouses and boyfriends, spiriting them away to this rural getaway to live a peaceful life off the abusers’ radars. Unfortunately, the brains behind this operation has become something of a criminal mastermind herself, convincing a number of the crooks that their loved ones are being held hostage and forcing them to pull jobs that will funnel funds and resources to the fledgling community/sanctuary. That’s how Porcupine ends up in Jessica’s orbit, becoming a surprisingly sympathetic ally as Jess attempts to find a solution that will put an end to the criminal activity while preserving the much-needed retreat for these unfortunate women and their offspring.

Needless to say, when I downloaded the first issue in this run, I was not expecting a story of such depth and complexity, where a segment of the expansive Marvelverse becomes a potent metaphor  not only for the victimization and subjugation of women, but of the potential for even long-suffering victims to find the inner strength and resources to stand up and fight back, not with the fists of their oppressors (well, not just the fists anyway) but with solidarity, and smarts. It’s the second time inside of a year that I’ve come across a Marvel story with such a well-crafted contemporary feminist slant, the other being the Netflix version of Spider-Woman’s namesake and fellow superpowered P.I. Jessica JonesIf this is a sign of things to come as Marvel plays catch-up with the world, and caters more carefully and overtly to their many female fans, I can only say we geeks are richer for it. And it leaves me eager to get my hands on the next volume, where this happens…

Spiderpreggers

 

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.

General Public, Part Two

Aside

BROCK STONE

Detroit, Michigan Thanksgiving 1956

General Public—no, Brock Stone; the General was dead to him now—made it as far as Detroit before the withdrawals started. While there may not have been any magic super-serum that transformed him from regular Joe to G.I. Jehovah, there had been a lot more than extra ammo and mystic weapons tech in those belt pouches. On the streets of Chicago, he’d left a pharmacopia of substances that had made General Public possible. The stimulants to improve his speed and agility, not to mention keep him conscious and in so-called fighting form for days at a stretch. Also the senso-enhancers that let him notice absolutely everything within the parameters of his sight, touch, hearing and smell, the mood stabilizers that allowed him to appear the perpetual paragon of unwaveringly upbeat virtue and fortitude, the constant synth-tosterone injections that increased his strength exponentially but made maintaining that supposed virtue off the battlefield that much more unlikely. Not to mention the powerful painkillers that were meant to dull the negative effects of the sensos, which had the unfortunate side effect of making every injury feel even more profound than it was. Problem was, he had to keep taking that stuff in regular and frequently increased dosages pretty much all the time in order to keep up the image. And if/when his supply went dry, which was wont to happen in the privations of a wartime setting, he was well and rightly screwed, crashing into an exhausted gibbering shivering wreck until he could sleep off the comedown or reach a resupply station. He once hid in a Bavarian barn for nearly two weeks waiting for a drop, more afraid of being found out by his own men than caught out by the Nazis. He finally managed to regain enough strength to make his escape by castrating six of the farmer’s bulls and devouring their testicles as a midnight snack.

Now he was going cold turkey, a strung-out ex-hero on the run, if not from actual justice, at least from the burden of being its living symbol.

He found a hotel—a flophouse really—in the heart of downtown, rented a room with the two dollars he’d found in the hollowed-out bootheel of a snoring hobo on the freight train that carried him away from his final battle and deposited him here. Dragged himself up six flights of stairs, kicking at rats with the last of his strength, their rodent hisses and snarls putting him in mind of Doktor Spleisser’s hideous mutant Dobermenschen. Staggered to the door past a sneering whore who briefly transformed into the uber-bitch Sister Hitler, the hapless sailor boy john on her arm never knowing the tortures that awaited him behind her door. Belly-crawled to the bed across a carpet of the dead and dying, trying not to put his hands in the guts and gore that spilled from yawning wounds. Climbed into the bed using the thin blanket like a hastily made rope ladder trailing from a speeding gyrocopter, a hateful face staring down at him from the cockpit, trying to kick him loose with a savage boot. He made it anyway, and threw himself down on the lumpy mattress before the hallucinations kicked off in earnest.

The neon sign blinking outside his window became the red flash of battlefield explosions, and Brock jerked away in spastic reflex. The shouts of people passing by down on State Street were the shocked and terrified screams of doomed soldiers who just wanted one more chance to see their mamas, or kiss their best girls. Brock prayed for unconsciousness, to a God he was sure had abandoned them all, but open or shut, all his eyes could see were nightmares.

All fighting men were witnesses to the unspeakable, but as the appointed savior of the free world, General Public beheld things that regulation dogfaces could scarcely comprehend.

At the entrance to the Hollow Earth, dead Nazi foot soldiers rose once again from the Antarctic snow, mindless killing machine-men with crudely implanted electrodes sending orders to their otherwise thoughtless brains. In his memory, he’d overcome them easily, knocking out servo-motors and pulling wires and watching them slow and still like unwound clocks, frozen statues in full uniform. But now they surged and swarmed, many more of them than he remembered, and it was they that were undoing him, one piece at a time. And he was helpless to stop them, helpless to reach the laughing bastard that created and controlled them, unable to stop the man as he removed Public’s silver helmet, and then his brittle skull…

As fingers sank into soft gray matter, he was transported to the skies over Luxembourg, onboard a dirigible filled with deadly nerve gas, as Air Marshal Bludwulf pumped round after round from his Luger into his impenetrable chest armor. Only this time, the bullets punched through like his uniform was tissue paper, sinking heavily into his torso and taking on lives of their own inside, not just puncturing organs or smashing against bone, but changing him in some terrible way. Bludwulf took the last parachute and jumped free—again, this wasn’t how it happened last time—laughing and falling away and firing one last shot right into the zeppelin’s hull. Just before it exploded and the world went white, Public saw that he wasn’t alone. The laughing maniac from the Hollow Earth expedition was there again, perfectly happy to sit behind the controls and let this play out, as long as it meant watching America’s Last Best Hope die in searing agony as he failed to save even a corner of the world.

The KamiNazi got the best of him on Iwo Jima, delivering a blast of energy that sent him flying nearly two hundred feet. “I’m okay,” he told the medic that rushed to his aid. “I was carried to safety by the explosion.” That was just as he remembered it. Until he looked down and saw that his legs had been blown off, one below the knee and one at the hip. The KamiNazi cheered his own victory and exploded, an orange-yellow blast of rising sun that swept across the island, flash-frying every hopeless soldier in its path. Even as the mushroom cloud turned the skies to winter night, the laughing man was there again, a strange pair of someone else’s legs tucked under his arms, and this time, he spoke. “Not to worry,” he said, and the General was pretty certain he was speaking German, but he understood the creep just fine. “I can fix you. You will be better than ever when I am through with you.” As he shoved the spare body parts against Brock’s bloodied stumps, they fused instantly into place, and he screamed in agony as his hypersenses felt every bit of the unnatural melding, and his body struggled to reject the unwanted limbs. As the shockwave and heat blast from KamiNazi’s self-destruction rolled over him in agonizing slow motion, his new foreign legs were forcing him to stand and walk…

…into a laboratory, high in the German Alps, enormous glass tubes filled with liquid, skinless bodies bobbing within like tropical fish specimens in an alien aquarium. He’d been here, too, after the fall of Berlin. There’d been no resistance then, no one to fight. Just him and a squadron of exhausted soldiers, hoping to find a comfortable bed to sleep in and maybe a hidden cache of fine European liquor, not more horror. But the horror never ended, even when the war did. And even if they were lucky to be alive, they hadn’t really escaped anything. Just moved to the next level of shit.

“It disturbs you, does it not?” The little sneering Nazi fuck again, emerging from the shadows in his labcoat, peering out from thick goggles, holding something under one arm, not a severed limb this time, but a strange jar of some kind, with dials and switches and an electric crackle emanating from one end, filled with thick green liquid and something floating inside, maybe some kind of mutant monster thing, and in the other hand, a giant steel syringe. “To know that in spite of all of your efforts, you have lost? That your own country has managed to handily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? But did you ever believe, even if you truly managed to save it, that you would return to the same place you had left? It is not America that changed. It was always a dark and terrible place. It is you. The veil has lifted. For the first time, your eyes are truly open. And you are able to see Hell for what it is. And while it believes it has no more need of you, the hard, sad fact is, America needs you more than ever. But it is too late. And in a way, it always was…”

The Nazi rambled on, even as he plunged the syringe into the neck of the jar and drew some of the green stuff into it. When he did, the thing inside seemed to stir, and rolled toward Brock with a pair of wild staring hate-filled eyes on stalks. Eyes attached to a brain that was somehow miraculously alive in there.

Brock tried to say something. He’d been trying the whole time, but nothing would come. It was like he didn’t know any words. The brain in the jar was alive, but his was dead. And what did it matter, really? This was just a hallucination. In a few hours, or days, or weeks, all of this would end, and he’d be able to go downstairs, outside, grab a pint of whisky, eat some pork chops, find a girl to bang. And everything would be fine. Just fine.

“We are here, you know? Even as we speak—well, even as I speak—we walk and work and live among your people, occupying homes on your streets, enjoying the view from corner offices meant for you and yours, brought here on America’s dime, ready and willing to direct your future, to manipulate it to our own ends. To re-orient the path of history and bring the Reich back on track. This is not your homecoming. It never was. It is mine. America is the Fatherland of the Future. And you are a memory.”

His limbs were weak and heavy and even his new self-determined legs were buckling as the sneering Nazi scientist plunged the big needle into his neck, and Brock Stone let out a scream to beat the band.