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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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).

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Free The Villain’s Sidekick

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Full disclosure: I’m about to have one of those milestone birthdays this month, where I find myself a lot older than the younger version of me ever thought I’d live to be. So in honor of that, I guess, I’m offering a couple of my books free this month over on Amazon, beginning with the one that started it all, The Villain’s SidekickFor the next five days, grab it and run and get the skinny on Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, the semi-lovable henchmen with a machine gun arm, an iron jaw, a steel-plated skull, a lethal boss, an irritable ex-wife, a precocious six-year-old daughter, and a heart of pyrite. It’s short enough to finish in three to five bathroom sittings and there’s plenty more where that came from (including an upcoming prequel story in the third Good Fight anthology and the origin tale, The Devil’s Right Handwhich will be available free next week).

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.

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

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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.