Review: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

regionaloffice

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.

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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

 

Another One in the Can

Update: It being my birthday and all, I figured it’s only right to announce that The Devil’s Right Hand will release on February 29th, just in time for Leap Day. Makes a great gift for that special someone you only think about once every four years…

Available for pre-order right here.

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

Just over two weeks ago, I typed the final words of the first draft of Citizen Skin, my long-gestating sequel to The Villain’s SidekickNow the hard work lies ahead, of doing a major revision, then recruiting a few beta readers, then polishing the hell out of it, then having an editor fine-tooth comb it, many steps I was confident enough to skip when I threw Villain’s into the world. But that book was less than a third of the length, had a much simpler, more streamlined plot, and poured out of me in a very short time. Citizen I’ve been hammering away at almost since I first finished that one, and it’s a monster by comparison.

Still, in the interim, I did manage to churn out The Eternity Conundrumwhich like Villain’s was born after a quick, mostly painless delivery and a very short period of labor (yeah, I’m running with the pregnancy metaphors, as if there’s any real comparison). It hasn’t been quite as widely read or well-received as my first, but it serves its purpose and I still stand by it as something I’m proud to have made, even if it maybe could’ve used a little more time in the oven. Not that it’s half-baked, just a tad undercooked. And now I’ve got another one of those, a short story, even leaner than Conundrum, that explores Duke’s HandCannon origins, how a war-wounded veteran turned petty criminal found himself swept up in the world of supercrime and metahuman villainy. It’s called The Devil’s Right Hand (at least for now) because I was listening to the Steve Earle song of the same name (“mama says a pistol is the devil’s right hand”) and it was so literally perfect to describe a guy who’s right arm is a machine gun. Of course, in this story he doesn’t even have that bit of his identity yet, but you can get a good glimpse of where his life is headed. Also, without spoiling anything, I will say that this little tale contains possibly my favorite of all the ridiculous superpowered characters I’ve come up with in the HandCannon Universe.

This is an early announcement, as I literally just finished the first draft of the story a few hours ago, so I still have to do my own revisions, let a beta reader or two opine on the story, and then get it as polished as I feel like getting it in time for my publisher, Budget Press, to have it on the table for the L.A. Zinefest in early March. But it’s been such a goddamn productive few weeks on the writing front, I just felt like I needed to share. Plus I knocked out a nifty cover that doesn’t  exactly match the uniform aesthetic I would love all the books to have, but for a guy with absolutely zero graphics skills, I don’t hate it as a placeholder.

Anyway, more news as it comes along in the next week or so, but for now I just wanted to whet your appetites.

The first taste is free:

“Load up on guns, bring your friends…”

                                                                                    Nirvana  “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

El Paso, Texas, November 1991 

Everyone’s got an origin story, but not all of ‘em are created equal. I mean, on one end of the spectrum there’s you, right? Just some regular schlub trying to get through your life and not die before you’re ready—good luck with that, by the way—and on the other end there’s the lone survivor of some vastly superior but still inexplicably humanoid alien race who shows up on our planet and gets to live out his days playing messiah to every hapless fuckwit too useless to rescue their own damn selves. How relatable is that? In between you’ve got your obsessive, vengeance-minded billionaire geniuses, one-percenters who think they know what’s best for humanity and have the toys and means to force their worldview on the rest of us. And then there’s the angry narcissists, despotic freaks deformed by rotten luck or raw nature acting out egomaniacal agendas; a lot of these guys and gals have their own secret bases, their own armies, even their own countries sometimes, full of slack-jawed goose-steppers that willingly follow these id monsters in spite of the fact that they’re usually just cannon fodder or targets for misdirected rage. And that’s not even covering your ordinary Joes with deep personal flaws and devil-may-care life approaches who stumble into industrial accidents or come across ancient talismanic objects that grant them amazing powers and turn them into low-level deities for good or ill.

And then, somewhere below all of them, luckier than a lot of you Jane Does and Joe Six-Packs but unluckier than most, there’s folks like me. Criminal chumps on a downhill slide to the Big Nothing before getting unexpectedly called up to the majors, coasting for awhile on the same thrill that athletes, actors, musicians and politicians must get when their star first starts to rise.

***

I wake up to the sound of snoring—deep, loud, and disconcertingly male—and after a few foggy moments I start to piece together where I am. The hard thin mattress barely protecting me from the metal struts of a cot screwed tight to a cinderblock wall. The overwhelming stench of piss, vomit and despair. The reverberating clang of metal on metal and the murmur of discontented voices.

Jail.

Of course.

Where I else would I be after a string of days and nights spent and wasted on border-hopping bar-crawling culminating in an epic-length blackout? The final hours of my latest self-annihilating binge reduced from a hi-def videostream of crystal memory to a series of time-lapsed Polaroids, like the film ran out of budget and the third reel consists of nothing but storyboards and snapshots of scouted locations. My next question: what side of the border was I on when they rounded me up? I dimly recall an El Paso drowning hole called La Boca del Leon, a couple of mouthy shitkickers who didn’t understand how I could shoot pool so good with just the one functioning arm, and the kind of all-hands-on-deck bar fight you assume only ever happened on a Hollywood soundstage in the heyday of the Western. I get my answer only when my head clears enough so that I can suss out from the nearby voices of jailbirds and law enforcers that most everyone seems to be speaking Texas-accented Americanese.

I try to sit up and literally everything hurts, from my alcohol-drenched brainpan to my war-wounded arm stump. My insides roil and heave with an admixture of every kind of booze, most types of pills and an unhealthy gut-bomb of grease-sealed Tex-Mex. The rust-crusted, shit-stained steel toilet seems impossibly far away, even in this 6×8 cell, so I just roll over and aim for the floor as my body rejects a platter-sized splatter of semi-digested flotsam from deep in my innards. I expel so much I’m pretty sure I’m puking stuff I haven’t eaten in years, like baby food, or even in this lifetime, like primordial soup. It’s only when I go to brace myself to keep from tumbling off the cot that I realize my prosthetic arm is missing.

The queasier among you will not want to hear this next part, so, yeah, spoiler alert: I go face first into my own belly stew and split my chin on the cold cement floor beneath it, which at least does me the favor of giving me an entirely fresh shock of pain to focus on.

“You mind keeping it down over there, pal? I need my beauty sleep before I bust outta here.”

It takes a few to realize that A) the snoring has stopped and 2) that rumbly voice, more amused than threatening, must be coming from my cellmate.

“Yeah, well, pardon me,” is the best I can muster, about 30% sincere and the rest however-much-amount sarcastic.

“S’matter?” my celly asks, and as he sits up and lets the thin scrap of what’s meant to pass for a blanket fall away, I realize he’s at least as big as I am. And at seven feet plus and close to 300 pounds of mostly muscle, I am nobody’s idea of small. “Bed wasn’t cold or hard or vomity enough? Decided you’d be more comfy in a warm puddle of your own sick?”

He’s a black guy, the kind where you actually get why they call ‘em black, with skin the shade and sheen of a well-worn leather biker jacket. 400 pounds easy, with shoulders practically as wide across as the front grill of a ’65 Lincoln Continental. Even just sitting there, in boxers and a wifebeater, I know he’s ex-military, although I can imagine the NFL champing at the bit just to place him on field in the defensive line like an immovable human wall.

“Kelvin Watts,” he tells me, even though I haven’t asked. “Friends call me Battery.”

“Cause you’re so powerful?” I hazard. “Or as in ‘Assault and…’?”

“Pretty much every reason you could think of,” he says, smiling wider than he already was.

“Duke LaRue.”

“I’d shake your hand but…” He indicates the mess I’m still extricating myself from, then tosses me his blanket scrap so I can start toweling off.

“What you get popped for, Kelvin?”

“Same as you, I’m guessin.’ Makin’ more trouble than a man my age oughta be.” He glances, then gestures, at my arm stump. “When’d you get back?”

“What’s it been? Six months I guess. You?”

“Shit, I’m not sure I am back. But about a year, if you go by the Gregorian calendar. How’d it happen?” He taps his elbow to indicate he’s referring to my stump. Guess that’s more of a conversation piece than the facial scars and glass eye.

“Chopper went down.”

Kelvin nods, then, “Friendly fire?”

Helluva guess. “How’d you know?”

“Lotta that in Desert Storm. Plus, the ones it happens to tend to be more pissed off than the ones who came about their wounds the so-called ‘honorable’ way.”

“I seem particularly pissed off to you?”

“You were when you got here. They musta worn out five TASERs puttin’ you at your ease.”

“Since when do El Paso cops have TASERs?”

“It’s the ‘90s, baby. Brave new world. So, how you earnin’ your beer money these days?”

“Sympathy, mostly,” I say, waggling my stump for emphasis. “And when that runs out, cheating. At cards, at pool, with rich guys’ wives. Supplemented with the occasional strong-arm robbery.”

“I see.” He gives me a long once-over, his expression turning 100% serious for the first time since we met. “You affiliated?”

“What…like…am I in a gang?”

Kelvin comes back with a noncommittal shrug.

“Yeah, sure, I’m an honorary Crip. But only because I don’t look good in red. I hope you ain’t a Blood. Nothin’ personal if you are.”

If he grins any wider, the top half of his head might come off.

“I’m not really talkin’ street gangs. I mean, once you been to the other side of the world, that shit starts to seem kinda pedestrian, doncha think?”

My turn to shrug.

Kelvin stands up and finds the county-issued orange jumpsuit folded neatly under his bunk, starts forcing himself into it like ground pork into a sausage casing.

“Well listen, friend. It’s been real nice chattin’ with you and all, but I got places to do, things to be, people to kill. You know the drill. So if you’ll excuse my abruptivity and forgive my shortage of social graces…”

With that, Kelvin “Battery” Watts gives me my first-ever up close and personal demonstration of what it means to have superpowers. Quicker and more graceful than I woulda thought possible, he heaves his enormity up off his cot and unscrews the lone bare light bulb that hangs in the middle of our cell. With nary more than a jovial wink in my direction, he jams two thick fingers into the empty socket, making contact with the live exposed wires inside, a shower of sparks cascading down over him like little electric snowflakes and his eyes glowing yellow, maybe just from the reflected electricity though it seems more like the light’s coming from inside his head. The lights flicker and dim in the corridor and the other cells and the ongoing murmur of voices shifts suddenly to a louder chorus of mild alarm. Without removing his fingers, and reacting to the surge of power coursing through him with a kind of ecstatic shiver, Battery reaches over with his free hand and pounds the cinderblocks once, twice, three times until the back wall crumbles to small chunks and pulverized dust and Texas morning sunlight streams into our tiny shared space.

“You’re welcome to join me, of course.”

The frenzied sounds of human confusion are already swelling in intensity as a gaggle of guards clomps down the corridor outside our cell, and as tempting as the daylight looks, I think maybe I don’t have it in me to move far or fast enough to outrun these chumps and making a break for it would just be turning a pretty minor misdemeanor into something I might not be legally or emotionally ready to handle. Plus, I’m in my skivvies and they’re holding my other arm.

“Not today, man,” I say, settling back onto my cot.

“In that case, I appreciate you not trying to score brownie points by shouting for the uniforms. If you ever get south of the border, look me up. We could have us some fun. Maybe even turn a dime for it.” And with that, he steps through the hole and disappears into the El Paso morning.

“I’ll do that,” I say, knowing full well that I won’t, and that I’ll never again lay my good eye on Kelvin “Battery” Watts.

Funny thing about certainty though: in this life, it’s not really so much a thing.

 

 

 

 

The Villain’s Sidekick 2nd Anniversary Sale

VillainsSidekick

This week marks two years since I threw common sense to the wind and unleashed my self-published novella onto the world. As I chip away at the sequel that’s taken twice as long as originally predicted, I pause to celebrate by putting the original e-book up for sale on Amazon for a mere .99c. I know most of you who bother to read this blog have long since read it (or at least bought a copy that you have every good intention of reading when you really genuinely feel like it), but maybe you can pass the good word on to a friend, coworker, associate or stranger who’s a degree or two away from the short arm of my marketing reach. It’s still as good as it was 2 years ago, and most of its contemporary references have not been consigned to the dustbin of “That is sooo 2013” just yet. The sale starts tomorrow, Friday Sept. 4th and continues until the following Friday, the 11th.

So give it a shot, huh?

And for those that haven’t heard it yet, here’s a link to the Dork Forest podcast that I participated in just recently. If, like me, you can’t get enough of this whole superhero fiction phenomenon, then this is the online chat show episode for you!

Shameless Self-Promotion Tour 2015

It’s been nearly two years since I first published The Villain’s Sidekick, and while I’d much rather be pushing the sequel by now, it’s been a bit more of an undertaking than I anticipated, so for purposes of trying to keep interest alive for the stuff that’s already out in the world, I’m throwing a little 2nd anniversary party for Villain’s. As such, for anyone out there who hasn’t read it, the Kindle Edition will be on sale for the mere pittance of .99c starting Friday Sept. 4th and continuing through Sept. 11.

As such, I did a little promotional interview with the e-reader targeted online publication, Book Reader Magazine and figured what the hell? Why not share it here and fill up some blogspace in the bargain?

http://bookreadermagazine.com/featured-author-stephen-t-brophy/

Featured Author Stephen T. Brophy

IMG_2501Featured Interview With Stephen T. Brophy

Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, which I ended up choosing as the setting for my first novella, The Villain’s Sidekick, even though I haven’t lived there in years. I left Texas after college and settled for a good long while in San Francisco, where I landed my first paid writing gig after many years working below my abilities in restaurants and cafes and the like. Once bitten, I couldn’t go back to those day jobs, so my girlfriend (now wife) and I relocated to Los Angeles a few years back. We now have a pretty amazing son and two wonderful, tragically aging dogs, a neurotic Lab mix and a pit bull/boxer.

At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I was born to two voracious readers, so the love of reading was instilled from about as early as I can remember. I actually had a little difficulty learning to read but once I got it, I took to it like a Great White shark to a helpless sea lion, and within very short order I was bored with kiddie lit and moving on to grown-up books. I remember reading “Jaws” when I was 8 years old (hence the shark reference) after being so enthralled by the movie. So, fittingly enough, when I started writing, my first book was entitled “Jaws,” and involved a shark who could walk on land (SNL had just started airing around that time, too, so dual influences at work). I wrote a lot of derivative stuff until I found my own “voice.” Which is really probably just a mash-up of all the authors and stories I’ve encountered and loved ever since.

Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
My favorite genres are science fiction (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, John Brunner, Ramez Naam), crime fiction (James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard), and the literature of the dissolute (Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Don Delillo). They’ve all equally inspired what I do now. But the biggest influence over the last few years–and at my age maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m so not–has been a rekindled love of comics, from weird indies to straight up mainstream superhero fare. I’d read them off and on since adolescence, but when a friend introduced me to Sleeper by Ed Brubaker, and I went on to read his Captain America stuff, I became more immersed than I’d ever been. In fact, I’d been kind of stuck on a science fiction story I was telling and it was only when I got the inspiration that I could include superpowered characters and take it to a more interesting, liberating place. Since then, I’ve read a LOT of superhero prose fiction–basically comic books without the pictures, I guess, but so much more, too–like Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible,” Jim Bernheimer’s “Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, Rafael Chandler’s “The Astounding Antagonists,” Blake Northcott’s “Arena Mode” series and on and on. It’s really a whole terrific genre just waiting to be discovered by the mainstream. And with the current popularity of superheroes in film, it seems just a matter of when.

Tell us a little about your latest book?
I’ve written two novellas featuring my alter-ego, Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, a supervillain’s henchman with a machine gun arm, a steel jaw, an ex-wife who used to do crimes with him before the birth of their adorable precocious daughter, and all the troubles that go with being a semi-reformed bad guy in a 12-step program who may be harboring a hero beneath his frightening exterior. He’s basically the distillation of all that Bukowski, Jim Thompson and William Gibson I mentioned up top. There’s The Villain’s Sidekick and it’s short prequel, The Eternity Conundrum, and I’m currently working on a full-length sequel, Citizen Skin. The sequel alternates POVs from chapter to chapter between HandCannon and his badass best friend Trista Brooks, also known as Nightguard. She’s a supporting character in Villain’s who steps large on the stage in the follow up.

The Good Stuff

I promised a while back that I would get better about posting to my blog with greater regularity, and I have all-but-failed mightily in keeping that promise. I was also hoping that this blog would take on some weighty theme that balanced my life in recovery with my love of comic books, superheroes and all manner of pop culture ephemera. Who knows? Maybe it still will. Someday.

But for now, I’m just going to throw up a lazy list of cool things I’ve stumbled across in my free time lately, the material that’s been filling my brain or stuff that just deserves a little extra exposure.

Thanks to Comixology, I read a lot of digital comics these days, filling up my e-shelves with runs of whatever they put on sale for .99c if they sound the least bit interesting, and doing my best to never pay more than $1.99 an issue for the premium stuff, which usually means waiting at least a month after the original release date for the prices to drop. Thanks to the convenience of the site, I’ve been exposed to all kinds of stuff I might have never discovered otherwise, especially since I haven’t been a single-issue print purchaser for decades, from mainstream “Big Two” books to all kinds of amazing indie material covering a multitude of genres.

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Far and away the most interesting, entertaining book I’ve been reading on the regular for the past couple of years–the one I look forward to most each month (or longer, if they’re shipping behind schedule)–is Lazarus from writer Greg Rucka (Gotham CentralPunisher: War Zone) and artist Michael Lark (Winter Soldier, lots of other terrific work with Ed Brubaker). Set in a dystopic American future (can we conceive of any other kind?), it’s the story of Forever Carlyle, the enhanced posthuman bodyguard for her family, one of a small group of corporate clans who control all of the world’s wealth and resources. Each clan has one family member who is dedicated as the family Lazarus, nigh-unkillable warrior-soldiers who protect their blood relations at all costs, and carry out much of the dirty work when it’s called for. And it’s called for pretty often. The rest of the populace falls into categories under an oligarchical caste system in which everyone’s societal status is determined by their value to their respective clans. Laborers are known as Serfs, and everyone below them–most of the 99%–are deemed Waste. And opportunities to change your station are slim to none at best. Which doesn’t stop people from trying, usually to their own regret.

It’s an impressive exercise in world-building science fiction and a brilliant allegory for our current state of income inequality, while also being action-packed, soap operatic, and immersively entertaining every step of the way.

Five Shots to the Skull! Highest rating!

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I recently discovered the British scifi comedy/drama Misfits, which ran for five tight, short seasons from 2009-2013 and was a moderate hit on BBC America. It’s an offbeat coming of age series about a group of young adults doing forced community service for various crimes, and on their first day on the job, they’re caught in a storm that imbues them with an odd assortment of superpowers that very much reflect their damaged personalities. In an American version, you might expect that these kids would fairly quickly realize their gifts and heed the call to become “proper superheroes,” but in this anarchic swirl of hormones and bad behavior, it takes this crew five years and a gradual but complete cast and character overhaul before they really pick up the mantle of herodom. In the meantime, they drink, drug, creatively curse, fuck and accidentally kill multiple probation workers in possibly the most punk rock TV show it’s ever been my pleasure to binge-view. It’s more reminiscent of Skins than it is The Avengers or even Mystery Men, with a hint of Buffy in the way that their young lives, their powers, and the monstrosities they encounter are frequently metaphors for the painful, puzzling struggles of adolescence and the agonizing transition to adulthood.

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Apparently loyal viewers during its original run were unhappy with the wholesale cast changes that took place, particularly from season 3 to 4, but watching it in one fell swoop made the transition feel much more organic, and eventual series lead Joseph Gilgun (a terrific bad guy in Lockout and soon to co-star as the Irish vampire Cassidy in HBO’s take on Preacher) is so goddamned entertaining he pretty much walks away with the whole show anyway. Also entertaining to see Iwan “Ramsay Bolton” Rheon as a likable nerd and burgeoning badass in the early seasons. It’ll make you hate his face just a little less.

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Three Strikes Against Your Record! Highest Rating!

This past week I read an article on the AV Club about David Fincher having the plug pulled on his proposed cable series Utopiawhich was said to be a remake of a fairly recent scifi suspense series from Britain’s Ch. 4, in which an obscure graphic novel holds secrets that could apparently lead to either mankind’s salvation, or its doom. Maybe depending on who’s reading it? I dunno.

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This was the first I’d heard of it in any form, and considering my recent good luck with British scifi series, I tracked it down, finding several episodes from its two seasons available–in high-quality HD no less–for free on YouTube. Watch the first scene of that first episode and if you like your scifi thrillers gorgeously shot, intriguingly scored, shockingly dark and laced with brutal humor, you’ll be hooked from the jump. I’ve had to search a little harder to find episodes four and five but I have found them, and while I’m not quite through the first season, I’m enjoying it at least as much as I did the Wachowski’s Netflix series Sense8 (though that show is decidedly more utopian than Utopia for sure).

Four White Rabbits! Highest Rating!

Finally, for today, I want to mention Springan offbeat romantic horror fantasy that feels more like a well-made naturalistic indie drama before the high weirdness kicks in. It’s the story of an underemployed young man from California (Lou Taylor Pucci from the 2013 Evil Dead remake) who gets into some potential legal trouble shortly after the death of his mother and decides an impromptu trip to Europe is just what he needs to get free of the life that’s closing in on him at home. Once there, he meets some incredibly obnoxious British backpackers who drag him on a roadtrip to an idyllic resort town in the shadow of Vesuvius (and yes, SPOILER ALERT, that is definitely Chekhov’s volcano, destined to go off in the third act). There he meets Louise (the jaw-droppingly stunning Nadia Hilker)

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who is either God’s gift to weary travelers or a nightmare walking, depending on her blood sugar levels. It’s equal parts Before Sunrise and American Werewolf in London with a hint of another recent indie horror flick, The Afflictedthough it doesn’t suffer from that movie’s ill-considered choice to muck around in the exhausted subgenre of the found footage thriller. It’s solidly scripted, the leads are charming and likable, and the indie directors got a lot of mileage out of utilizing carefully planned drone shots to capture their Italian seaside setting. And even when it erupts into horror, it’s anything but a generic monster movie, emerging as something much more Lovecraftian while remaining thoroughly romantic and surprisingly sweet. This is a horror flick that, occasional grossouts aside, would make a better-than-average date movie.

Four Probing Tentacles! Highest Rating!

The Greatest Fan Fiction Ever Told

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This guy, am I right?

I’ve never been a big Spider-Man reader, so my awareness of the character Herman “Shocker” Schultz–frequent Sinister Six member in reasonably good standing and a Spidey foe for pretty much as long as I’ve been alive–was dim at best before I read Superior Foes of Spider-ManIn that fantastic series, Herman makes a fateful decision that leads him and the other five members of the Six (if that doesn’t seem to add up, just read Superior Foes, dammit!) down a path that could spell doom for all of them. But in the end, out of everybody, it’s the Shocker (whose only superpower is the shock-resistant suit and vibration gauntlets he built in prison, because he’s actually kind of a genius even though he doesn’t know it) who pulls out a big win when he single-handedly takes down…well, why should I spoil it for you?

It was my childhood friend and brother from another mother Jeff Coleman who turned me on to Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men and Dave Sims’ Cerebus when they were the freshest things on the spinner rack, and thus inspired my lifelong dalliance with comics. He’s also the artist responsible for the 3D rendition of HandCannon that graces the top of this blog. He recently stumbled across a terrific piece of fan fiction that basically answers the question “what would The Villain’s Sidekick be like if I’d written it using licensed Marvel characters?” 

Shocker: Legit,  written entirely on spec, or for fun, by Max Landis (son of filmmaker John Landis, screenwriter of the found footage superhero flick Chronicle) concerns itself with what might happen if Herman Schultz were to grow weary of being a punching bag for metahuman crimebusters like Spider-Man and try his hand at doing the hero thing himself. He gets his first opportunity when he comes across the Hulk-ish Ravage running riot in downtown Manhattan and manages, through grit, determination, and some dumb luck, to take the monster down.

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During this encounter, he gets an unexpected assist from Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy, who becomes his unlikely ally as they uncover a vast conspiracy involving a company called First Person Shooter that allows regular, high-paying citizens to operate mind-controlled supervillains and use them to wreak real-world havoc as if the actual death, destruction and carnage were all some kind of virtual reality game. And that’s just the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg. Meanwhile, Felicia becomes an even more unlikely love interest for the embattled  Herman.

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It’s not hard to see why (and for the record, I had to search far and wide to find an image of Black Cat that made her look like the badass she is in this story, rather than the hypersexualized fantasy figure she’s usually portrayed as). No sooner do they start investigating this dark conspiracy than they are the targets of not only the drone-operated super baddies, but mercenaries for hire like Bullseye and the Enforcers, and while Herman and his crew manage to beat the odds time and again, they are well-brutalized for their troubles–in addition to repeated nose-breakings, contusions, lacerations, stabbings and shootings, at one point Herman loses an ear. A fuckin’ ear!

The story’s not perfect. Considering it’s fan fiction, there’s an impression from the typos, occasional grammar mistakes and tense switches, and a few places where small but crucial bits of information seem to be missing, that you’re reading a first draft. And considering it’s unsolicited fan fiction, one can’t really fault Landis for not going back and fixing it all for our consumption. Plus, it compensates with a pretty ingenious story, a smorgasbord of well-placed Marvel character cameos, and an extremely likable, relatable take on its accidental protagonist.

I’m not exactly sure when Landis wrote it–my best guess is that it’s from sometime in the mid-oughts–but what struck me right away, from the first page, was how stylistically similar it is to Villain’s, Confessions of  D-List Supervillain and other works in this subgenre (bad guy/henchman goes good) of a subgenre (superhero narrative fiction). Like my own book, it concerns a street-level goon with self-esteem and anger issues whose abilities are purely technological; it’s first person present tense, highly comedic without resorting to parody, and as loaded with heart as it is with violence and insanity. Especially touching, along with Herman and Felicia’s love affair, is his equally unexpected friendship with this guy:

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Landis’ and Herman’s portrayal of Rhino is as a not-always-gentle giant with a heart of gold and the mind of a child. He’s simple, sweet-natured, capable of terrific destruction but loathe to hurt innocents or civilians even as their war heats up. Again, I haven’t read enough Spidey to know how accurate this portrayal really is, but it works well here, providing another sympathetic layer to Herman as he looks out for his big loyal lug of a buddy.

Along the way, Herman scores some more unlikely admirers and allies in a quest for truth that leads to some (emotionally as well as physically) uncomfortable places: Reed Richards and Tony Stark marvel at the genius of his prison-created suit and power gauntlets and begin to treat the low-level schemer as an intellectual equal…

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…and after an extremely unpleasant initial encounter, he even earns the grudging admiration of this taciturn motherfucker…

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More than anything, for fans of this kind of stuff, which I obviously am, Shocker: Legit is just one of those unexpected treasures the internet coughs up every now and again that hits right in the sweet spot. Well worth a read. And the price is unbeatable.