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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Legion of Damn! Thoughts on the Best Thing to Ever Happen to TV in the History of Recorded Time

Back in the 1990s, when I was a flat-dwelling San Francisco Gen X slacktivist too busy falling in futile love with lesbians and smoking speed out of broken lightbulbs to do something as mundane as, ugh, watch TV, there was a live action series inspired by the X-Men comics I’d loved as a kid. Apparently, it looked something like this…

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It’s as if they managed to capture the essence of everything questionable, wrong-headed and lame about the decade and distill it into a single syndicated television program. (Hopefully they later jettisoned it into the far reaches of space.) Granted, I also thought I was too cool for comics at the time, but even if I hadn’t been, I doubt I’d have been slavering at the mouth for a weekly taste of whatever this is pictured here to satisfy my cravings for supertainment.

Four years later Bryan Singer’s X-Men would arrive and upend everything about the moribund live action superhero film that the ’90s Bat-franchise had so successfully driven to the edge of its grave.

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That’s a massive leap forward in less than half a decade, but it made a promise that the the 2ks would be lot more interesting for mutant-lovers and comics geeks, and it re-inspired my appreciation for those old funnybooks by using the Claremont/Byrne era I read and loved as a touchstone.

But countless superhero franchise flicks later, and after the dull thud of Age of Apocalypse, you might forgive me for summoning images of Generation X‘s ’90s-era awfulness when I heard that FX was going to do a live-action X-Men show based on an obscure character (to me, at least) from the ’80s New Mutants books (I never read those).  

Of course, I had a glimmer of interest when I heard that Noah Hawley was going to be the guiding force behind it, not least because I’d had such a similar reaction when I first heard that someone was going to make a TV version of the Coen brothers classic film Fargo. After all, someone had already tried that idea years earlier, too, and it did not meet with what you might call success.

But Hawley somehow managed to nail the language and storytelling rhythms of the Coens so well, I was convinced they had a heavy creative hand in the whole endeavor, only to learn later that beyond their exec producer credits they had next to none.

So I had confidence Hawley would at least do something noteworthy with his little slice of the X-franchise. And the casting of Dan Stevens (so great as a kind of sociopathic Steve Rogers in the underseen thriller gem The Guest ), Aubrey Plaza (an out-of-nowhere sensation from Parks & Recreation who really needed to prove that she could do something more than drip dry slacker sarcasm over any and all proceedings), and Jemaine Clement (who’d already busted out of his Flight of the Conchords comedy-music box by tearing it up as a sexy vampire in What We Do in the Shadows) seemed reasonably intriguing, if not outright inspired. So yeah, I figured I’d give it a look. Maybe Hawley would give me something to look forward to on Wednesday nights since I’d abandoned Arrow. Boy, was I underestimating that mad fuckin’ genius.

The pilot for his Legion announced its intentions pretty much from the first scene, introducing the viewer to a bugfuck puzzlebox where it was hard to tell what year, decade or mental facility we were in, or whether we were ever in reality at all. I had to watch the whole thing twice just to try and decide for myself what was happening in 3D reality and what was going on exclusively in the confines of David Haller’s (Stevens) mind. Happily, as art-rocked as the episode was, there were definitive answers to those questions, and David even expressly asked, “Is this real? This is real, right?” at the appropriate moment. And the response he received was not a narrative cheat, but a direct testament to both character and viewer. Basically Hawley saying, “Yes, we’re fucking with you, but no, we’re not.” After that rewatch, I knew that this pretty, occasionally Lynchian multimedia indulgence, with its spot-on music choices and psychodelicate visuals was actually going to tell me a story, and wasn’t just yanking my chain for the sake of getting away with high weirdness on the TV (though that was a pleasant side effect).

I knew it wouldn’t be a show for everybody, but I knew most of my comics-reading friends would love the shit out of it, and even better, it was one I could happily recommend to certain non-comics friends who were more literate in things like Kubrick, David Lynch, David Bowie, and other things arty, entertaining, offbeat and good.

Much like in Logan, Hawley’s show thrives on solid writing, spinning out character beats and scenes about human connection that almost make you forget you’re watching a sci-fi suspense series based on a comic book. And the mutants they’ve contrived for this corner of the X-verse are unique and metaphorical in ways that tend to serve both story and theme. Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, a full-bodied, full-blooded star in the making forged in the fires of Fargo, and that character name is no accident, Pink Floyd fans) can’t touch anyone lest they switch bodies/identities. So of course she and David have to fall in love. Cary/Kerry Loudermilk (the always-amazing Bill Irwin whose film career stretches back to Robert Altman’s superweird Popeye movie) is a middle-aged man with a kind of parasitic female twin (Amber Midthunder, a lovely young actress with sixteen years of work behind her already and the best surname I’ve ever heard in my life) who can leave his body at will, but generally doesn’t like to, so has aged much slower than him. She’s also kind of a badass. Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris, who can wear the hell out of some clothes) can enter people’s memories, which proves really useful in parsing out what’s going on in David’s brain (the central question being, is he schizophrenic, or a superpowerful mutant that can rewrite the world?). Ptonomy also has an awesome Thompson machine gun.

As much as I’d love to write an episode-by-episode breakdown of why this is the greatest thing to come out of the Farnsworth box and enter the center of my brain like one of Brian O’Blivion’s Videodrome tumors, I know we live in an age where even the most voracious of readers are devolving to have the attention spans of sugar-stimulated gnats, so I’ll try to just brushstroke its greatness in a few more hyperbolic paragraphs of praise.

Back in 2012, X-Men: First Class Screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted:

“My goal in life is to get “Oh! You Pretty Things” into an X-Men movie. I think I’ve got a good shot at succeeding.”

For those that don’t know, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a classic David Bowie song from his early masterpiece (just one of many) Hunky Dory. It contains the following lyrics:
Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stayOh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

I have no idea if David Bowie ever read an X-Men comic, or whether he would have wanted his beautiful song used in a giant mega-blockbuster comic book franchise movie (for enough Euros, though, probably sure). But I do know that those lyrics, by happenstance or design, pretty much summarize the entire reason for being of the X-franchise. That is the very essence of what every really good X-men story is ultimately about. The freaks represent an evolution, and mankind in all its tremulous fearfulness just ain’t fuckin’ ready.

When I read Stentz’s tweet, just after Days of Future Past was announced as the next X-Men flick, I thought, This guy gets it. This is EXACTLY what the soundtrack to a ’70s-set X-movie needs. This is style and attitude and a connection to something bigger than this insular comic book multiverse. 

Then the movie came out, with neither Stentz’s name in the credits nor the song on the soundtrack, and those are not the only ways Days of Future Past disappointed me. But I won’t go into that here. For whatever reason, Stentz has had nothing to do with the franchise since, though I’m sure he’s having a fine career, and no one else in the movie side of X-world seemed to give a shit about his inspired pop musical idea. But over in Hawley’s world…

BAM! A beautiful cover, an expressionistic montage, a pointed use of this terrific song at an integral moment in the show. And that’s just one of the many examples of Hawley’s brilliant use of music to augment and underscore his high-art pop confection, which honestly has a David Bowie feeling all over it, from production design to wardrobe selection to just a general vibe. But back to the music: Pink Floyd’s “Breathe (In the Air)/On the Run” scores a crucial moment in the season finale, and they are another musical force whose artistic identity infuses the show. As musical acts, Floyd and Bowie didn’t shy from scifi concepts; rather they fully embraced them, and they’ve obviously had a profound influence on Hawley’s approach to the genre, to which I can fully relateAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did something similar in a recent episode with the Moody Blues “Have You Heard?” and it was terrific. Likewise Winter Soldier’s use of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” in its closing montage. I just wish more of these comic book shows and films would engage with deep-cut pop culture in this way (and not the wall-to-hall first-flapjack-off-the-griddle song selection of Suicide Squad).

The show doesn’t look like anything else, doesn’t cut together like anything else, says fuck-you to the idea of “where is this?” or “when are we?” It’s overloaded with style, and some might bristle at that, but it’s style worn comfortably over intriguing substance. It’s not afraid to be sentimental, hilarious, terrifying, outrageous, disturbed, distracting, profound and irrelevant, always in the same episode, often in the same moment.

In the early going, I thought Hawley was perhaps just using the Fox/Marvel franchise as a stepping-off point to indulge some weird experimental boundary-pushing televised mindscrew that would have very little relevance to or reverence for the source material. But while it definitely feels like he’s getting away with something, there’s no way that giant synergy machine would ever let him get away with all of that. So for those looking for a fullblown high concept comic booky genre show, it’s definitely there. In spades. With inscrutable government agents and spooky organizations and demonic presences and superpowered showdowns and carnage galore. For those who might watch the first one or two and think, Where is this going? It’s going nowhere, right? like it’s Lost all over again, you needn’t worry. Just as with Fargo, there’s nary an i un-dotted or a t uncrossed in the tightly plotted, flab-free eight episode arc. Why more shows don’t keep things to this manageable number is beyond me (I’m looking at you Netflix/Marvel).

Needless to say after all that emotive gushing, this is not Generation X’s Generation X. It’s post-millennial post-modern high art for lowbrow lovers of pop wonderment. If I ever get a chance to turn The Villain’s Sidekick into a TV series I’d want to do something as tight and well-defined and satisfyingly one-and-done as Hawley’s done with this flagship season. It’s like he’s taken the best lessons of indie film, art school, mini-series, his record collection and serialized soap operatic funnybook storytelling and put it in one of those blenders people pay a thousand bucks for because it can even make hot soup.

Go taste the perfection.

Legion

The Good Fight Vol. 3 For Sale March 21st

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.

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The Good Fight Anthology Available for Pre-Order

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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.

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.

Free to Be You & Me, but Mostly Free to You: The Devil’s Right Hand

As I further contemplate the turning of the screw that is achieving a half century of life, I find myself wanting to give away my earthly possessions–well, some of them anyway; definitely not the ones I use daily, like my car or any of my flatscreens or personal electronics–so I figure it’s a fine time to keep it rolling with a digital giveaway of the HandCannon origin story, The Devil’s Right HandSo let your keyboarding fingers do the walking over to Amazon where, from February 15th to the 19th, you can get yourself familiar with the life and times of Duke “HandCannon” LaRue.

And if you happen by today, the book that started it all, The Villain’s Sidekickis available for that same non-price for a few more hours. Makes a great Valentine’s Day gift (for lonely types who like their book-readin’ anyhow).

from the author of -The villain's sidekick-' (1) copy

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.