Monday, December 30, 2013

Final Thoughts before 2014



2013. I’m so over it.

I backed the wrong horse this year. It cost me some ground. But the good news is, I’m back on track, now. I’ve got some big stuff planned, and it’s going to start sooner, rather than later, in 2014. Stick around for it, won’t you?

In other news: Duck Dynasty. Yeah, on second thought, never mind.
No, I've got to get this off my chest, because it's just a perfect example of how we operate these days.
 

I’m sure that most, if not all of the readers of this blog understand that “reality television” is the new oxymoron for the 21st century. Nothing is real on TV. Not the shows, not the news...none of it. And you shouldn’t trust any of it, either. Not when all of broadcasting is owned by vast, multinational corporations who care for nothing except an increase in quarterly earnings. And if you think this whole Duck Dynasty thing is anything other than a fourth quarter cash grab for the stockholders, you’re missing the bigger picture.

This “controversy” was manufactured artificially so as to drive some merchandise sales. That’s it. Push some product. It was a calculated move on the part of A&E, who were (a) with the guy at the time he said what he said, and (b) could have put the kibosh on those comments before they aired...but they didn’t, did they?

Nope. They let them run, knowing full well that FaceBook would erupt in indignation. As if anyone cares what any 65-year old man thinks about 21st century problems. Please. They knew that there would be a swarm of people defending his rights of free speech, and they knew that if they fired the guy, his fanbase would go ballistic.

So, all of that Duck Dynasty merchandise that has been sitting, lagging, in all of the rural stores across the country (like Hastings, the pop cultural mecca for towns with a population of 100,000 or less), all of a sudden becomes a badge of pride. A collectible. Whatever it takes to get it all gone. Last minute stocking stuffers. You decide. But it’s now been re-distributed amongst the fans, who maybe didn’t realize they were supposed to buy that crap in the first place. So, no returns! Numbers are up! Hooray for A&E’s stockholders!

And lo, two days after Christmas, like some kind of miracle, the old man gets his job back. And the clouds part, and the angels sing, and everyone’s made their Christmas bonus. What changed? Other than a lot of money, from your hands to theirs? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Bupkiss. The status quo is back where it belongs. Fans of the show are happy. The people not happy are the folks who weren’t watching Duck Dynasty in the first place. Nothing but gain. Zero downside. And so FaceBook goes back to sleep until the next manufactured gaff or crisis wakes everyone up to cross-post to their entrenched groups.

Another successful scam perpetuated on the American public. Seems like a perfect way to end 2013. Let’s hope we’re all a little smarter next year, okay?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

That Old Christmas Spirit: A Heartwarming Yuletide Nightmare



Author's note: This is an old story I wrote back in the days of Clockwork Storybook. We wrote a lot of Christmas stories during our run, of varied quality, but I really like this one, still. It sums up most of my feelings about Christmas nicely. It was literally inspired by a dream I had, and it scared the hell out of me at the time. I tried to make the "off the rails" part of the story just like my dream. You can let me know if I succeeded or not. Hope you enjoy it! 

“Santa Claus, Daddy!” Martin Hartsfield tugged frantically on his father’s arm, to no avail. He leaned into the task of attempting to steer the grown-up away from the Old World Sausage Shoppe and into the North Pole Pavilion of Guildcrest Mall.
“Marty, calm down!” Joseph Hartsfield’s tone was rougher than he’d intended, but Christ, that kid was driving him nuts.
“But Daaaad...” whined Marty, the nasal tone raking down Joseph’s spine.
“Son,” said Joseph, as he leaned down and turned the six-year old around to face him, “do you remember our deal?”
Marty’s expression went from petulant to thoughtful.
“What we talked about on the way here? If you’re good and quiet and help me out tonight, we’ll go see the Christmas lights.”
“Yeahbut, Dad, that’s Santa Claus over there!” Clearly this changed the deal in Marty’s eyes.
Joseph didn’t even glance over his son’s shoulder. “Did you see the line over there? Son, the mall will be closed before you can even get to talk to him.”
“Yeahbut...”
“Marty, I promise, we’ll come back later, when it’s not so crowded.” Say, in June, Joseph thought. “Now, if you want to see the Christmas lights tonight, then you’ll be a big kid and help me out, okay?”
“Aw, but Daaaad...”
“Okay,” said Joseph, standing up, “here are your choices: keep quiet and help me out, then we’ll go see the Christmas lights, or keep whining and go home with nothing. What’s it going to be, son?”
Marty hung his head. “Aw, I guess I’ll be quiet.”
“Good,” Joseph said. They resumed walking. “While you’re being quiet, why don’t you tell me what you’re going to ask Santa for this Christmas?”
Marty’s eyes lit up. The Santa incident now forgotten, he started in on his list, rapid fire. “I want a Gameboy with the Pokemon Gold, and an Action Man with the blow gun thing, and Spyro for the Xbox...”
Joseph let him chatter away while he gnashed his teeth at the whole thing. Christmas was for the kids now, not the adults. He surveyed the mall, bedecked to overflowing with silver and gold tinsel, red and green wreathes. Every single store had some overt way to signify that it was indeed Christmas, and all of your shopping needs could be taken care of in one fell swoop if you would just come inside. Joseph hunched his shoulders and stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling grinchy. It had been like this since early November, for Christ’s sake! As if anyone needed any reminders. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Finn’s Wake Holiday Survival Guide




Nothing says Class Act like a carton of smokes
under the Christmas Tree! Hey, if The
Gypper can do it, then anything is fair game.
Oh, I get it. You hate the holidays, it’s too commercial, it starts in September, blah blah blah. Get over yourself. It used to be your favorite (or second favorite, if you were a weird kid) holiday. So, what happened? You grew up. It stopped being all about you, and became an obligation, a chore, a big honking hassle. Hey, man, I get it. For what it’s worth, I agree with all of the above. And yet, I love Christmas. Always have. And do you know why? It’s the only holiday we have where, no matter what you say about it, it’s true. Yes, it’s commercial. It’s also magical. Sure the suicide rate goes up, but people DO in fact act nicer. Charities get that much-needed boost. It’s one of the few times when we become the people we think we are. Doesn’t matter your religious or political affiliation (or lack thereof), everyone can enjoy Christmas with no strings attached.

So, this guide is aimed at the Grinches of the world. It’s a five-part system designed to get you into the holiday spirit, come out of your Grinch cave, interact with the rest of us Whos, and most importantly, survive the Christmas season so that you can do it all over again next year. My advice may seem odd, but trust me, it’s sure fire and fool proof. Don’t believe me? Read on, Grumpy McChestnuts.

Part 1: MUSIC!

Don’t look at me like that. One of the best ways to get in the Christmas swing of things is with music. Now, before you click away, let me explain. Everyone who hates Christmas music has never heard good Christmas music. They only hear that crap that the malls pump out, and it’s usually a blend of kiddie sing-a-longs like “Jingle Bells,” Brenda Lee’s completely tired and played out version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the latest insincerely delivered platitude from whichever has-been won American Idol last year. Who wants to listen to that ever, much less at Christmas?

You want this. If for nothing more than their cover of
"I'm Mister Heat Miser," you want this.
No, see, you have to go off the grid for good Christmas music. You have to forget the malls and Wal-Mart, where you are guaranteed to hear the Chipmunk’s Christmas song, and make no mistake: it will make your eye twitch. Maybe that’s just me. Probably not. Once you scratch all of that safe, overplayed junk off of your list, you can start looking for the real deal. There’s Christmas music, and Christmas CDs, in every conceivable popular music genre. There’s R & B Christmas CDs, Doo-Wop Christmas CDs, Jazz Christmas CDs, and Swing Christmas CDs. Of course, you can get Rock and Roll Christmas CDs, Country Christmas CDs, and Blues Christmas CDs. Did you know that there are even Punk Rock Christmas CDs? Oh yeah. What’s your favorite kind of music to listen to? What puts you in a good mood? Okay, that’s where you start. If you like swing and big band music, for example, there’s a ton of great, inexpensive Christmas CDs to check out.

Also, think about musicians you like. Chances are, they have a Christmas album. If Twisted Sister can have a Christmas album, anyone can. James Brown’s Christmas CD is a must-have. Brave Combo’s Christmas CD is awesome. And Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s Christmas CD gets played at my house, every year, without fail.

A wonderful mix of cool and absurd stuff.
Look around. Check out what’s online. If you don’t know for sure what or who to buy, get a compilation or two. One of my favorites is Christmas Party with Eddie G. It’s a kind of Christmas mix-tape for hipsters before we knew what hipsters were. If you want something more modern and extremely un-traditional, then get the New Wave Hits of the 80s Christmas collection, which includes one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” sung by the unlikely duet of Davie Bowie and Bing Crosby.

One side note: You may be tempted to pick up one of the Bob Rivers Twisted Christmas collections, and if you eventually want to make your own Christmas mixes and playlists, go ahead. But be wary of listening to Christmas novelty collections at the exclusion of all other things. A little funny goes a LONG way. You’ll burn out on the novelty songs twice as fast. Think about it: Aren’t you sick of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer?” Yeah, me too.

But why, you may be asking, is Christmas music important? Because it’s a no-stress way to get you in the mood without forcing your to shop, decorate, or bake. You can pop a disc in or cue up a playlist while you’re cleaning the house or surfing online. If it’s stuff you picked out for yourself, that you actually like, then you’re more apt to find yourself humming it out loud in the grocery store line next week. Being happy in public is kind of a Christmas-y thing to do, you know.

Part 2: MOVIES!

Still not in “the mood” yet? Ain’t no thing, my brothers and sisters. All you gotta do is let your favorite Christmas movie get you in the mood. Or, if you prefer, your favorite Anti-Christmas movie. It’s really that simple. Pick a night or two when you’re committed to watching one or more of your favorite holiday films. And yes, it can be Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. That’s totally legit. If you need to burn all of the residual cynical thoughts out, pop in Bad Santa.

You know the dentist is gay as a goose, right?
If you’ve got kids, this is super easy. The Rankin-Bass animated shows like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer used to be required viewing for us as kids and there’s no reason to stop now. Same thing with A Charlie Brown Christmas. What are you, a Communist? This is great stuff. 

Are you up on your classics? White Christmas? A Miracle on 34th Street? It’s a Wonderful Life? Watching a classic film you’ve never seen before is a great way to get a little happy juice in your system. Just be sure to stay away from the Hallmark movies, the made-for-television offerings, and any "remakes" of classic films. That path leads only to madness and despair.

I’ve got a few modern classics that I break out every year: Scrooged, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Elf have become the must-watch quartet for propping up my Christmas cheer.

But every once in a while, I go dark, early. That’s when Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Gremlins hit the DVD player. Look, you use whatever works, okay?

Part 3: SHOPPING!

Can you feel the Christmas Love in this photo?
Basically, my advice is this: don’t do it. It’s a sucker’s game. Well, okay, you kinda gotta, but the trick is to do it your way; the way that makes sense. That means avoiding “Black Friday” like the plague. Chances are, you don’t need what they are offering, no matter how ridiculous the price.

I shop local whenever I can, and I go online for everything else. In my small town situation, I’m an hour’s drive from any big box stores. And I’m okay with that. My family, thankfully, is pretty easy to buy for, and I find that I can split my purchases between local merchants and online stores fify-fifty. That’s pretty good, and best of all, I avoid the thing that most people hate the most about Christmas—the crowds of rude people and the endless driving and circling for the best prices, the last of the stock, the perfect parking space, and all of the rest of it.

But what do you buy for people? That’s the question, always. And I think that’s where most of the pressure comes from; this idea that you HAVE to buy stuff for people. You don’t. Not really. There’s a ton of stuff you can do, that you can give, that people will really appreciate. It genuinely IS the thought that counts. You don’t have to overspend—just do what you can.

Make a list of people you simply MUST shop for, with no exceptions. Hopefully it won’t be more than ten people. If you’re lucky, it’ll be five or less. Don’t put everyone you know on the list—just the people you know you’re going to spend time with this year; your close, immediate family; the inner circle. That’s your pool. Everyone else gets a Christmas card.

If you’re scraping by, like so many folks are this year, then don’t go crazy on the gift-giving. If you can bake, then make cookies. Or cakes, or pies, or tamales, or whatever you can. Make it from scratch and people will appreciate it. You’d be surprised. Or knit, if you can knit. Or whatever else you can think of. It doesn’t have to come from a store to be a great gift.

Getting what I want? Christmas magic, right there.
Lastly, and this is very important: I know some people stigmatize gift cards as “not real gifts,” but they are stupid and wrong. I’m hard as hell to shop for; I admit it freely! If you really want to do something for me, and you have no idea where to start, I’m happy to accept gift cards and gift certificates all day.

Whatever you plan to do, try to get it all done in a short period of time—say, over the first or second weekend. The sooner you get this out of the way, the quicker you can relax, because it never gets less busy in the stores as you near Christmas. Staying away as the days count down will eliminate so much of your stress and keep you in a better mood.

Part 4: FOOD!

One of the best things about living in Texas. Fresh tamales
are a part of my Christmas from childhood.
Cookies, pies, cakes, hot cocoa, fresh tamales, kolaches, mulled apple cider, peppermint, summer sausage and cheap cheese...these are just a few of the things I associate with Christmas food. I know we’re just now coming out of Thanksgiving, but now is NOT the time to be watching and counting and pointing and starving. You’re doing more stuff—up your carb intake. Also, don’t be afraid to use food as a way of cheering your miserable ass up. Go on: eat that chocolate chip cookie and don’t even think about where it’s going. Just get some serotonin into your bloodstream, and quickly.

I love to cook, but my real weakness is baking and desert making. I suck at it. Well, that’s not quite right. I can do it, but it takes a lot of effort and the results are never what I want them to be. Edible, sure, and maybe even tasty. But never brilliant, like what my mother can do.

Either way, I’ve got some holiday recipes that I like to trot out. If you can cook, you should consider making one or two things to bring to the office or the next party. People love real food, especially when other people make it. If you have a specialty, now is the time to whip it up. That feedback you get when everyone tells you how much they liked your food? That’s Christmas, baby! Cook, and give away your food, and feel good about it. If you can’t cook...wait, you know what? I don’t buy that. Maybe you can’t make lasagna, but there are a number of simple, nay, foolproof, recipes for snacks and cookies that an idiot could do. Hell, if nothing else, make some Chex mix and bring it to the office. Yes, Chex Mix. I ain’t playing with you. It’s easy, delicious, and because you made it, it counts as cooking during the holidays.

In CONCLUSION!

The most important thing to remember about this time of year is that there is no wrong way to celebrate the season. Whether you are completely religious, completely Secular, or some mix of the two, like most of America, I suspect, in the end, you make Christmas time your own. To paraphrase Tyler Durden, you decide your level of involvement.

I have a good friend who, for year, opted out of doing anything for Christmas. His holiday was spent eating fried chicken and gravy and watching old Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road movies. He loved it. He told everyone not to buy him anything, and he was going to do the same, and that was that.

Don’t ever feel like you have to do something this time of year. Also, if anyone makes what you’ve done for them feel cheap, or meaningless, then that’s not someone you want to spend Christmas with next year. It’s not worth the hassle, the guilt, or the shame. You do what you can, and earnestly, at that. You make it your own holiday. Your friends and family will respect it. Everyone else that doesn’t get it? Not your problem.

There’s a massive amount of societal pressure this time of year, and you need to do whatever you can to circumvent as much of it as possible. Sure, it means getting ready early, and maybe when you’re not exactly feeling it, but come December 25th, you may not be so Scroogian and sad. You might just be having a good time and wishing some folks peace on Earth and goodwill to all. And that, to me, is what Christmas is all about.

Happy holidays, folks. Be safe. Stay sane.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Keep Your Nuts to Yourself

As Thanksgiving descends upon us like the advance vanguard of an invading green and red armada of suck, and as the kitchens of America all go into high gear, and all of you talented amateur (and professional) cooks, chefs, and weekend caterers all dive into your treasured stack of recipes, and start posting pictures on Facebook, and even as some of you are considering sending along plates of sweets and Christmas tins full of home-made treats, allow me to offer one direct request:

Keep your nuts to yourself.

Not a year goes by that some well-meaning person doesn't bring me a plate of home-made brownies, just the way I like them, with the satin-sheen glaze across the top, that crust that breaks open and allows you access to this thick, rich, gooey, chewy chocolate center, and then all of a sudden--BAM! I'm digging a piece of a pecan out from between my teeth, looking for all the world like an Alpaca chewing a cud, and I'll ask, through gritted teeth: "ARE THERE NUTS IN THESE BROWNIES?"

They'll look confused, as if I just asked them if they were made of protein chains and water molecules. "Yeah," they will answer, in a kind of dazed wonderment. "Of course. It's brownies. Why wouldn't there be nuts?"

This is acceptable. Why? Because they are out in the open
where I can see them. 

Why, indeed. I'll tell you why: BECAUSE the NUTS ARE ALWAYS OPTIONAL. That's why. And yet, there are some of you with a hidden nut agenda, who will try to sneak those little brown tree stones into every single food on the table. Why? What's wrong with you? Were you hit on the head by a stray pecan as a child?  Buried under a bushel of walnuts? Why would you pass your damage on to the rest of us?

Look, let me say this up front: I don't have a problem with nuts that I can see. Toasted pecans, in a bowl, or mancala almonds, or even pistachios...wonderful. Great snacking. And while most of the world's nuts look, taste, and crunch like tree bark, I'm willing to let that slide because you can do an awful lot to a nut and it'll taste just fine. This is not an anti-nut rant.

My problem is with stealth nuts. Don't make that face at me; you know exactly what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that half a cup of chopped pecans that you dumped into a cake batter "to give it some texture." Hey, news flash, genius: The texture of cake is soft, spongy and cake-like. It's not cake-like with hidden, errant little granules of hard, sharp fragments that get caught between your teeth and tear your gums and hurt the top of your mouth because you were biting through a giant mouthful of cake and, frankly, expected no resistance from the local peasantry.

Who's idea was that, in the first place? "Oh, this chocolate cake is so delicious! I think it would be even better if I dumped a cup of bitter pecans into it." Honestly, I don't know how these things got started, but they need to come to a screeching freaking halt, here and now.

This is my nightmare. I shudder just looking at it.
What a waste of baking.
Some of you are hovering over your keyboards now. I can sense it. You can't wait to reply to this with some scathing rebuke. Let me see if I can't head your objections off at the pass.

"It's just a few nuts. Can't you pick around them? Why are you being such a baby?"

Listen, it's children who break their food apart, looking for suspicious foreign matter, not adults. I don't want to have to comb through my food for stray debris. I'm over forty. I don't need my mealtime to become a game of I-Spy.

"Are you allergic? No? Then why are you making such a big deal about this?"

It's not allergies. It's texture. I don't like rock-hard surprises in my soft, mushy food. If you don't like soft, mushy food, and feel that you can't properly digest anything without swallowing a few gastroliths, like an ostrich, then quit making Jello Salad and banana bread. You take care of you, and stop foisting Ninja nuts on the rest of us.

"But Mark, EVERYONE likes nuts in their brownies/cake/ice cream/mashed potatoes/chocolate pudding. It's expected. What's wrong with you?"

At least all the nuts are on top. No surprises, here. I still
won't eat it, though. It's soft underneath that armor coating.
It's only expected if you are a family of tree-dwelling squirrel-human hybrids. Go back and read your recipe again. Better still, I dare you to find me a recipe for brownies where the crushed walnuts are structurally integral to the brownie. I double-dare you, Nutty McNutterton. There's not a cookbook in the world that advises you not to skimp on the nuts or your flan will fall apart. They have always been an optional garnishey-like thing. In fact, you don't need them in soft food at all. Trust me on this. They add nothing to the flavor of anything, and only produce irritation for the people like me who hate crunching down on nature's only mistake. Your Aunt Rose never once said, "Oh, I'm only eating this brownie for the pecans." Well, maybe she did say that, but come on, look at Aunt Rose. She's never turned down a brownie in her life. You could put a spark plug in your brownies and she'd never notice. She's like a billy goat, Aunt Rose is.

You want nuts? Grab a handful and squirrel it up. Stop hiding them in food you're going to give to other people. It's sneaky, dishonest, and it smacks of passive-aggressive mothering.

"Okay, smart guy, what about X? Or Y? Or Z? It's got nuts in it, and you eat that!"

Let me explain the difference between eating a Snickers bar and biting into a soft, fluffy brownie full of tree pellets. I know there's peanuts in the Snickers. I'm braced for it. If the nuts are on top, like a Pay Day candy bar, or you have a brownie with a pecan mooshed into the top of it, like it's wearing some strange badge of honor, I can deal with that. I'll eat the nut separately, using an entirely different chewing system, and then tackle the brownie. But I won't--ever--eat them together.

And this goes double for savory dishes, too. The latest atrocity is people putting nuts in their dressing (or stuffing, if you prefer). What the bloody hell? I've seen some of the recipes that even say, "a half-cup of pecans," followed by the words, "for texture." It's CORNBREAD STUFFING, you asshole! You don't like the texture of soft, savory, delicious cornbread stuffing? Well, let's get crazy, Emeril. How can you improve it?  Ding! I know! Just dump three full cups of whole pecans into the mix. Go on, get crazy, why don't you? Serve that to Uncle Billy, why don't you. He'll think you're insane, and he'll be right. And now you've ruined Thanksgiving with your freakish nut obsession. Are you happy?

I'm not sure where it came from, or who started it. Probably the English, with their figgy pudding and spotted dick and their mushy peas. Hey, if I had to eat like that, I'd probably be crazy for something--anything--to distract myself from the thought of eating beef that's been boiled in water so as to remove all flavor and nutrition.

But we're not English anymore. We're Americans. We have more nuts than we know what to do with. We're all nutted up. So, serve nuts this holiday season--up top, out in front, in the open, and all by themselves. You'll be surprised at how quickly they disappear. But stop trying to make us eat nuts we didn't know existed, like some strange Schrodinger experiment.  Quit tucking your nuts away in the soft, squishy stuff, and let them stand out, on their own, proudly, for everyone to enjoy.

Thank you, and Happy Holidays!




Sunday, November 17, 2013

So, this happened after a couple of beers today...

Hey, Look, I made a video!

Okay, you merry band of misfits. You want me to talk more? Or type more? Or split the difference and do both?

Speak up, guys. I will do as thy will.

Friday, November 15, 2013

There's Nothing "Tricky" About Wonder Woman

I keep seeing the muckety-mucks in DC's upper echelons wringing their hands and trying very hard to use specific words when describing how difficult it would be to make a Wonder Woman movie. I cannot disagree with that assessment emphatically enough.

Would it be technically difficult? Not any moreso than making Superman, or Spider-Man, or any other heavy CGI-effects-driven tentpole movie.

Would it be a "tough sell" for a modern-day audience, most of whom don't read comics? I dunno, why don't you ask Marvel how difficult it was putting a second-tier character like Iron Man over.

In truth, it'd be no more difficult than making the Captain America movie. After all, it took Marvel 75 years to get that one right, but in the end, they did. They did it, like they did for so many of the other characters in the Marvel Universe Movie Franchise, by getting out of the way and letting someone who "gets" the character adapt the material to the movies. Let them pick and choose what to include, so as not to overwhelm "the straights" with forty years of, say, Asgardian infighting, for example.

"But Mark," you say, "DC DID that...remember Green Lantern?" Unfortunately, yes I do. And I have said this publicly and elsewhere that Johns made the rookie mistake of putting all of the eggs into one basket. He frankly didn't know, or didn't consider, that this would be a long-term project--or maybe they told him to do this--but that movie was crowded with everything that someone would need to launch a Green Lantern toy line, and not enough of anything else to make a movie.

But we're not talking about that. We're talking about Wonder Woman. The last of DC's "Big Three, after Superman and Batman." One of the most recognizable characters in DC's line-up. Perennial cosplay favorite. Visible in at least a couple of monthly books. Written by some of the best talent in the industry. Exactly what is the problem, then?

Oh, the different versions of the character.

There's probably a bondage component
to this that makes me uncomfortable.
Yeah, see, even before I saw the TV show, I owned a Wonder Woman comic. This comic, in fact. It's Ric Estrada artwork in it, and the story is pretty okay, as far as stuff from that time period goes. Nothing rang false in my six year old brain when I read it. I didn't know until much later that this was actually part of a kind of trope in the Wonder Woman comics wherein she is routinely shrunk down to miniscule size in an effort to diminish her power. Read into that as much as you'd like. You're probably correct.

But what really introduced me to Wonder Woman was this. Go ahead, give it a look. I'll wait: The Wonder Woman TV Show Intro.

God, but Lynda Carter was...still is...a knockout. Brunette, curvy, and very girl-next-door. This set my sexual preferences in stone at a very early age and they haven't really moved since. But enough of that. This was live-action super hero hi-jinks, played out in prime time, at the exact same time that the Batman TV show was in syndication in the afternoons. This was not a coincidence. The Wonder Woman TV shows were about one-third less campy than the Batman TV shows, which made them barely tolerable as opposed to unwatchable. But I was six, what did I know? Not much, I tell you. So I watched them.

What a great costume. Then and now.
The first season had Wonder Woman fighting the Nazis, which I really liked. Hey, I was reading Captain America, too, back then. But the following seasons brought Wonder Woman up into the modern world, where all of her adversaries used crystals for their super powers and wore pants suits. Not cool. Not cool at all. Honestly, the best thing about the show is the theme song. Even when they changed the lyrics for the second season, it was still groovy. And I do like the opening sequence, even though it's as corny as Nebraska.

I tried to re-watch these a few years ago, and they do not hold up. At all. They are the worst kind of terrible. But Good Golly, Lynda Carter in that suit...

I'm okay.

After the show went off the air, I frankly didn't think about Wonder Woman very much for about ten years. She was in the Justice League, and I would occasionally see a Golden Age story reprinted in a book, or read about her creator, William Moulton Marston, who also invented the modern polygraph machine. Interesting stuff. He was pretty progressive. Look him up. Your jaw will hit the floor. The Golden Age Wonder Woman stories are a mixed bag, by the way. In between smacking the Germans around and spouting off about personal liberty, Womder Woman was also very pre-occupied with trying to get Steve Trevor to marry her. Mixed signals, anyone? In the sixties, this trope moved to the forefront, and it wasn't until Wonder Woman joined the Woman's Liberation movement by having her powers stripped from her that the "I must marry Steve" subplot went away. Well, mostly.

Then in the late 1980s, DC relaunched Wonder Woman. They gave the book to George Perez and Len Wein, a veteran team responsible for some of their best comics. Perez went to town on the character and did what a number of creators were doing at the time--the old "returning to their roots" trick. Only in this case, it wasn't a trick. It stuck. Suddenly, Wonder Woman had a much richer and more nuanced back story. Now firmly ensconced within the Greco-Roman pantheon, she had a nemesis, in the form of Ares. It was a complicated relationship, one they explored in several great story arcs.

The wraparound cover to WW #1, drawn by living legend
George Perez with his usual eye for composition, drama
and exquisite detail. Still one of the best artists working.
It was a critical and sales success for DC, but like most creator-driven runs, Perez and Wein ran out of stuff to write and draw, and they turned the book over to other, capable people. Some of them got it. A few didn't. But Most of them tried their hardest, and interestingly, most of them did great work on the book whenever they went back to the mythology well for inspiration.

Since then, many other writers have taken a crack at Wonder Woman in other books, other forms, and other media. Some of the writers have just so happened to be women, for a novel change of pace. Darwin Cooke really highlighted one of the unspoken problems with the character in his critically-acclaimed series New Frontier, when the generals who needed her help defeating the Nazis give her their heartfelt thanks and politely but insistently tell her, "We'll take it from here." Ouch.

Paul Dini and Bruce Timm used her quite well in the Justice League cartoons for several seasons. Likewise, so did Mark Waid in Kingdom Come. There have been a number of excellent examples of how the character can be taken seriously, portrayed as both powerful and compassionate, and function as a cross between Captain America and Thor in the DC universe.

Difficult, they say. "Tricky." Yeah, right.

To me, it comes down to a few core things: Intention. Are you going to re-introduce the Wonder Woman you currently have on your plate to a new audience? Or are you going to try and overthink it, like you did with Superman?

Competency:  There's no reason in the world why you can't have the same kind of franchise Marvel is enjoying at the movies now. You just have to jettison the idea of continuity and write the movies with an eye towards being chapters in a larger work.

Character: Is the Wonder Woman we see on the screen a Wonder Woman we recognize? Does she act, behave, and perform like how we "see" Wonder Woman in our minds? It's okay if there's pieces and parts of certain eras all mashed together. The end result had better be part of the group-think Wonder Woman. This means, no pants.

You also have to respect the Canon, the source material. This is something that I think Warner Brothers is pathologically incapable of doing, and something that DC comics under their current leadership can't articulate in the first place. But let's press on. I wasn't kidding when I said Wonder Woman is a cross between Thor and Captain America. For the purposes of the movie, that's how we proceed.

Here's my pitch for a Wonder Woman movie that would satisfy the core audience, introduce her to newcomers who don't know anything about her aside from the costume. And it sets up sequels and things that percolate for later movies.

Wonder Woman: The Dogs of War
The movie opens with a quick re-telling of the history of the Amazons according to DC Comics, their subjugation, and their eventual home on Paradise Island. We establish they live very long lives. Then at the end of the flashback, we're on modern day Paradise Island. All seems well. Except for the Oracle. She's in her temple, back arched, eyes rolled back, mouth open, locked in a vision of horror.

We go into her vision and we see Ares, weakened, nearly drained of power. In his hand are the ends of four chains, leading to...what? He says, "Go, my minions. Sow the seeds of war that I might come to power again!" He lets go of the chains. We see them zip down the corridors, like they are attached to rockets.

Back on Paradise Island, the Oracle comes running out of her temple, screaming for the queen.

Overhead, arcs of fire shoot out in different directions, like comets. The amazons look up, confused. One of them turns and runs away. We follow her as she kicks open the door to the palace. "Mother! What was that?" It's Diana. Hippolyta and the Oracle and a few advisers are deep in angry discussion. The queen tries to shoo Diana away, but she defiantly remains. The oracle insists that Ares is bent on a re-awakening. No one else believes the oracle. The queen promises to meditate on it and dismisses them.

Later, she and Diana talk and they have their recurring fight about obeying the Queen, if not the Mother. Diana asks the queen what she will do. The queen says, "If Ares is coming back, then who will be next? We have to investigate." There is a montage sequence, including spinning newspaper headlines, showing the build-up to World War II. We see Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and Roosevelt and of course, armies on the move. All of this through the eyes of the oracle.

Another argument between the council. The queen is convinced, but they are not. Suddenly, the Oracle's face contorts, and suddenly, she looks a lot like Ares. He warns her to cease meddling in his affairs or he will make his castle upon the ruins of Paradise Island. The oracle's neck snaps, and she is dead. A trickle of blood from her nose drops onto the throne room floor. Blood has been spilled.

That's all the council needed. Okay, says the queen. We oppose Ares.

Now we get the whole thing with the Amazons choosing one champion to act as their representative in the world of man. Diana disguises herself, bests Artemis, and reveals herself to her mother. Another act of defiance. But the queen has to send her. They are making their farewells, when--

Cut to: Pilot in Cockpit, flying over the ocean.

It's Steve Trevor! American test pilot, making his maiden flight in the H-1, an experimental craft. After bantering with the control tower, he is told that Operation Houdini is a go. Steve flips a switch, and we can see on the wings a number of mirrors and plates lift up, flip over, and suddenly, the plane is invisible!  But it is a plane, and a prototype, and it's still leaving a trail from the transformation.

Diana looks up, sees the smoke, hears the trail, and shouts, "ARES!" The queen tries to stop her, but she vaults up into the air, smashes through the plane, and is very surprised to see Steve Trevor. The plane crashes, but she saves Steve. There's the brief discussion about a man setting foot on the island, but Diana is again defiant.

They salvage the plane, and Steve fixes it up as best as he can. All the while, he tells the Queen and Diana about what's going on in Man's World. He agrees to take Diana to his base, but he can't promise that they will listen to anything either one of them has to say. "If I tell them about this place, they'll lock me up forever. Even if you do show up like this, looking like that. Maybe especially if you show up looking like that."

The queen heeds his advice, and they craft a Battle Suit for Diana. Using the colors from the American flag, the Eagle as their symbol, and with the usual amount of weapons and accoutrements, she now LOOKS like Wonder Woman. Everything but the name.

They take off in the plane. Steve makes it invisible. The radio is scrap, so they can't call in, and he doesn't want to be shot down. Using the plane, they make their way back to the top secret allied base, where a number of clandestine espionage operations are being prepped and carried out, courtesy of the O.S.S. Once Trevor explains that he's in fact alive, and the plane is damaged but flyable, and oh yeah, here's an Amazon that wants to talk to Churchill, things go very quickly.

They Allied Command holds a meeting in Washington, D.C. They don't know what to do with her. She explains her mission is to help end the war, and root out its causes. No one believes her, of course. Trevor informs her that they are taking her back to Greece, which is where Trevor said he found her. She tells Trevor that she doesn't have to comply with their wishes. He says if she doesn't, then they really won't trust her.

The whole traveling circus piles into several cars and makes for the airport. That's when motorcycles swarm the caravan and machine guns open fire on the cars. It's an assassination attempt! She leaps out of the car through the roof and lands on Churchill's car, in the middle of the caravan. She pulls him out of the window as the motorcycles circle around. Bullets. Bracelets. Lots of punching and throwing and smashing. She single-handedly takes out the hit squad, and uses her lasso on the last goon running away. Under her questions, he tells her she can't save them all. And that's when his head assumes the shape of a black hound, and then his neck snaps. She's knocked back by the psychic force.

"Ares," she says. She gets up and walks over to Churchill. "Are you all right?"

"Whatever you need, you just let me know."

Okay, now she's in. Ares has tipped his hand. In her Prayer/Conference to her mother, she tells her what she say. The Queen says, "It's the dogs of war." Now we have the plot: four black hounds that do Ares' bidding, they are extensions of him, and they have the ability to possess mortals and, well, you can guess what's happened. Hitler: Black Hound. The Emperor? Black Hound. Mussolini? Black Hound. But where's the other one? Never mind that. He'll reveal himself. Take those three out and he'll show up.

Now we've got Wonder Woman in World War II, smashing Nazis, blocking bullets, bending tank barrels, and any other famous Golden Age covers we want to do. Plane catching. Bunker busting. You name it. Steve Trevor is the person who flys her in with the invisible plane, drops her over the zone like a bomb, and then lands and waits for her to show up with intel and equipment.

As a kind of ironic counter-point, the newsreel footage of Wonder Woman in action has that cheesy narrator voice-over..."The Allies have a new secret weapon...and she's a knock-out!" Steve walks out of the viewing room, disgusted. "Why are you selling that garbage?" he asks his spy master.

"Would you rather the truth?" the head of cover ops replies.

She captures Mussolini and Hitler and Trevor's spy group plants evidence that tells a different story. The black hounds of Ares burn up the military leaders and leave their bodies. Wonder Woman literally kills the Dogs of War with her Amazonian War Spear.

She's going after the Emperor next. What she doesn't know is that the command has also decided on a little insurance. They are going to drop the bomb anyway. Just to be sure.

Wonder Woman is there when it happens. She sees what man is capable of. She pulls the war dog out of the Emperor before it can kill him as a host, and she takes the dog back to Paradise Island. Trevor comes looking for her. She asks him, "Did you know about this?"

"No, I didn't know."

"Why would they do that?"

"I don't know. We've won the war. Peace has been declared. There was no point, except..."

They get it. The fourth dog of war. It's Truman. Wonder Woman again defies her mother and takes the captured dog of war with them. They fly to DC and confront Truman in the White House. Only it's not Truman. It's not the dog, either. It's Ares. He's weak, but he's back. Wonder Woman tells Ares to leave Truman and he can have the war dog back.

Ares replies by snapping his fingers. Secret Service men rush in, all with glowing red eyes. They literally cover Steve. Ares knows they can't hurt her, but Trever is mortal. She's about to tear them apart when Ares barks a command. "Leave off, or I'll stop his heart!" She backs off, seething. "Let the dog go." The hound leaps out of its magical enclosure and right into Steve. There's a short scuffle, of course. He's fighting it, but it's gaining control. "Now, my pet...kill the Amazon."

Steve looks into Wonder Woman's eyes. She nods. He nods. And he raises the gun and fires. The bullet ricochets off of her bracelet and hits one of his handlers. So does the second shot. She's controlling where the bullets go. He empties the clip. Truman takes a bullet, as does Steve--in his gun arm, dropping the useless weapon.

Wonder Woman is staring at the wounded president. If she lets Truman die, Ares has to leave the host. On the other hand, if she saves Truman, Ares is saved. She's torn. Finally, she asks for help. The Amazons whisk them back to Paradise Island, and make a deal that Ares will remain in Hades until the end of the century. He agrees, a little too quickly, and leaves.

They fix up Truman and re-install him in the White House. Steve wasn't in mortal danger, but they get the dog out of him and kill it, too.

They never find the fourth dog. Wonder Woman's mission has failed. The Queen tells Wonder Woman she was lucky that Ares was so weak, otherwise she'd have never been able to do what she did. Wonder Woman realizes she still has much to learn. She is disgusted with what she has seen of Man's world. Maybe they aren't ready to save, yet. Well, except for Steve. They have a romantic moment on the beach, and then say goodbye. "Will I ever see you again, Diana?"

"You might. If I am needed."

Cut to Steve Trevor getting a medal for distinguished service during the war. He's still got a cast on his arm. They are discussing Wonder Woman, where she is, what she's doing. Steve tells them "I don't know where she is, but I hope we can figure out a way to be better than we are now. I'd like to see her again."

And we pan away from them, to another military type, walking away. A general, but not a real historical figure. He gets into his car, tells the driver to take him home. We see him light a cigar using his finger. It's the fourth dog of war. Completely free to roam the world, building influence for Ares for another fifty years.

The end...for now.

There's your movie, Warner Brothers. It sets up a sequel, or you can go straight into The Justice League movie, depending on how you bounce it. The next Wonder Woman movie is in the modern day, and she's starting over, and it's a whole new set of challenges for her.  But if you put that first movie in World War II, you give a nod to the Canon. You make her competent, and you treat the character with respect. And you intentionally showcase the parts that are endearing and enduring and not stupid and campy.

I know, I know, we can't film it, it's got Nazis, you can't shoot Truman, blah blah blah, whatever. Intention. Competency. Character. Canon. Address those issues and you've got a movie.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Exploding the Myth of Comic Book Collecting

This news article from Bloomberg Businessweek is trending in the GeekiVerse right now. It's worth reading. Check it out: Those Comics in your Basement? Probably Worthless. One thing I'd like to pull out of the article is this thought:
And then there’s the other market, where most comics change hands for pennies and nobody is getting rich or even breaking even. “The entire back-issues market is essentially a Ponzi scheme,” Salkowitz says. “It’s been managed and run that way for 35 years.”
This is a Steve Ditko Spider-Man. It is
worth something. You have a Todd
McFarlane Spider-Man. It is worth
nothing. See the difference?
Well, no. I mean, sorta. Not really. When I was behind the counter of two different, very good comic book stores that also did a fair amount of Silver Age back issue business, we made it a kind of unwritten policy that we weren't selling collectibles. Not the new comics. That was what you bought because you loved comics and wanted to read them. The older stuff? On the wall, there? The Steve Ditko Spider-Man? The Infantino Flash comics? The first Silver Age appearance of Catwoman? Okay, that was a slightly different story. They were already expensive, especially compared to the weekly comics. But we always said there was no guarantee that the older stuff would go up in value. We had boxes full of comics from the fifties and sixties that no one wanted. The price guides reflected that.

Of course all of this was pre-Internet, and pre-eBay, but you know what? Even when those things DID finally show up, and after it managed to help equalize the back issue market somewhat, everything started slowly increasing in value again. Everything old, that is.

If I told one customer, I told a thousand, "Look, if you're buying that book, expecting it to go up in value, then you're doing it wrong. It doesn't work like that. I've sold a hundred of those books already, to people just like you. They are all bagging and boarding them up as we speak. In twenty years, you're all going to whip out your comic books and say, 'Now how much will you give me?' and there will be no takers, because the only people who bought them in the first place already HAVE them."

These guys were the real bandits. They
sold the entire industry a bill of goods.
I really gave that speech, and variations on it, for years and years. And even as I was saying it, I could see it going in one ear and right out the other. And make no mistake, I was not the lone voice in the wilderness, crying out against a sub-culture market that was indifferent to its customer base. Every good retailer I knew, all throughout Texas, and far beyond, as well, gave variations on that same speech. The problem was, for every good retailer in the 1980s and 1990s, there were three bottom-feeding man-children who kept their money in a cigar box, chased every trend to get "what's hot" and get it on their shelves, so they could justify borrowing all of that money from their parents so they could open up a comic book store and move their collection out of the house for good.

Okay, that's a little harsh. But it wasn't far off the mark. But that didn't matter, either, because there was nothing you could tell most of these people who were shopping in our stores that they were Doing It Wrong. See, they'd already seen baseball cards skyrocket--not the new ones, mind you. The old Topp's cards that the Baby Boomers were buying up because they missed their childhood. When comics started to go the same way, everyone assumed that it was ALL comics, and not CERTAIN comics. As in, comics printed before 1970.

All of this collector speculation is just another iteration of the great myths of American Culture: the Get-Rich Quick scheme. The idea that you could buy something for a dollar and in ten years it's now worth a million dollars is sheer fantasy, but it's one we all indulge in on some level. Whether it's lottery tickets, a 1957 Mickey Mantle card, the super rare (but reprinted often) Action Comics #1, or the Boba Fett action figure with the rocket pack that fires a missile that so many people swear on a stack of Bibles they actually owned, we all want to think we're like Jack with a handful of magic beans. Who wouldn't want to get rich for doing nothing except buying something you like enough that you were already going to own it? How great would that be?

These days, if you want to catch up,
you need to buy the trade paperback
collections (or the hardcovers).
You can buy the entire series that
way for less money than this one
book will cost you.
I've grown up around comics. My whole life has been filtered through crappy paper, four color offset printing, and hand-lettered balloons. When I was deep in the thick of it, I couldn't tell you what was going to become popular and thus collectible if you were to put a gun to my head. Case in point: while everyone else was buying multiple copies of the latest X-Men comics ten years ago, fewer than seven thousand people bought the first issue of The Walking Dead comic book. But a slabbed copy of the first issue recently sold for $10,000 on eBay.

There are two reasons for this: the first, and the biggest reason, is that right now, there's a lot more than seven thousand people who want that first issue. And the number one thing to remember regarding collectibles is the law of supply and demand. The second reason it went for so much is because the book was "professionally graded" to be a "9.9 out of 10" and sealed in Lucite, thus insuring that grade is permanent (not really) and also making sure whoever buys the comic can't read it without cracking the seal and thus destroying the grade. This is a racket, something aimed specifically at the speculators in the marketplace, but it's unfortunately one that the comic collectors of the world have bought hook, line, and sinker, so there you go.

Even now, there are people out there, trying to analyze what books will be worth something down the road. It can't be done. No One saw potential in The Walking Dead, aside from it being a modern-day western about the zombie apocalypse. Was it a good book? Yeah, if you read it. But if you gave it a pass (and believe me, everyone did), you shouldn't feel bad about that. The money was never yours. It was fate. Happenstance. Dumb freaking luck. You can't predict what people will want in twenty years, so you shouldn't really try.

But here's a good hint: if you seriously think it's going to be the same thing that everyone else is buying and storing in their cardboard boxes, you are wrong. This life lesson is best applied liberally. This hobby was never about the money. The most expensive books in my collection are books I'd never sell for any reason. Why? Because they are what they are: old, cool, funky comics that mean something to me personally. If you're not in it for the love, then you'll never understand that.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Remembering Nick Cardy

Legendary work on Teen Titans,
Aquaman, and so many other
great DC titles.
I'm sure that there other tributes out there that have personal stories and anecdotes about the late, great Nick Cardy, and they will undoubtedly be better than this poor effort. However, I do have something to say about Nick Cardy, and while my story isn't about a face-to-face meeting with the man, it's no less personal to my development as a comic book reader.

I grew up in the 1970s. Pre-Internet, Pre-direct market, pre-everything. Comic collecting was a long, lonely chore, and it began at 9 AM on a Saturday morning. I had four convenience stores to check out, at nearly cardinal points on my internal compass, and limited funds--only a couple of dollars. But it was enough.

You had to do it that way. The Colonial store got slightly different comics than Skinny's, see, and if you didn't check them all, you could miss something. This was essential if you were looking for new comics and trying to follow the story. Nothing broke my heart more than picking up an issue and seeing that little "Screw You, Loser" in the corner of the splash page: "See Last Issue."

The last convenience store on my route was called Little Jewel Grocers. They never had new comics. What they had was old comics that they never sent back to the newsstand distributor for credit. While chasing down The Amazing Spider-Man cost me 35 cents, I could pick up older issues of Batman and Detective Comics for 20 cents. They were my comic shop, so to speak. And I bought everything on their racks, eventually.

Just seeing the ad for this comic inside
another title scared the crap out of me.
I did this for two reasons: I was just collecting--reading and digesting, figuring out what I liked and what I didn't like--and I was also learning. I didn't know the nuances of Wonder Woman's origin, nor did I know how Titano became Titano, or what made The Elongated Man stretch. I was fascinated by this huge, colorful world, and make no mistake, brothers and sisters, it was a world made all the more seductive and amazing by Nick Cardy.

Something about his covers just shot straight into my primate brain and rattled around in there like ball bearings in a Dixie cup. Especially those beautiful Nick Cardy covers. Oh, the stories they told! What wonders they promised! I was compelled to buy those comics, based on the sincerely dramatic covers alone.

Later, I became aware of what an amazing artist Nick Cardy
was; technically, I mean. He was a master storyteller, sure, but there was something so casual, and yet so specific, about his line work and his choices that gave his drawing so much expression and movement. Cardy art jumps off of the page, or alternately, draws you in, inviting you to look over, around, up and down. Not a lot of artists can do what Nick Cardy did, and in such small amounts of space, at that.

Don't you want to read this story?
I still do, and I know what happens!
When I was younger, I loved Neal Adams covers for DC. But I instinctively knew that, unless it was something very rare and special, the carpet wasn't going to match the drapes. Usually, an Adams cover meant nothing special on the inside (there were always exceptions, of course). But Nick Cardy covers communicated the contents of the story, sometimes better than the writer did. They were genuinely compelling, and they made me want to read the comic book to see what happened. Part of my journey into comics collecting revolved around knowing the secret origins of heroes and villains, and so whenever I could, I sought out those double sized squarebound anthology-style comics--frequently sporting Nick Cardy covers, because he could communicate those stories in panels half the size of the cover themselves--and eventually, I began to seek those covers out for what I knew the issues would contain.

It's very hard to explain to people under the age of 30 what it was like collecting comics prior to 1985. If you bought a comic book at a convenience store one month, there was NO guarantee the next issue would be there the next month. If you wanted to know something about the Flash's Rogues Gallery, you had to either write a letter (with a pen and paper) and hope that it got answered, or you waited for giant-sized editions of the comics to come out with reprint stories, and you prayed for a retelling of the origin of Captain Cold. That's it. Those were your choices. There MAY have been a real, hardcover book or two that MIGHT have some comic book history in it, tucked away at the local library, IF your library was hip. Mine was not. But I was a precocious reader, and I was able to sucker my family into buying me hardcover and softcover reprint collections as they were initially being floated in the bookstore market. I've still got my "Superman: from the 40s to the 70s" hardcover. But it STILL wasn't enough.

These books were my bread and butter.
I was DC's reprint book market.
Only the monthly trickle of cool reprint books like Secret Origins and Wanted and the Giant-Sized reprint issues could slake my thirst for knowing how X or Y got their powers. And those covers were almost always the exclusive province of Nick Cardy. Every time I saw his art on the cover of a comic, I just knew whatever was inside would be all right. He made bad comics palatable, and he made good comics great. I loved him before I ever knew who he was.

Over the years, Nick Cardy became one of my favorite cover artist for DC in the sixties and seventies, second only to Joe Kubert. His page art was just as good, and his painting was amazing. He was one of those artists like Jack Davis who could do anything--humor, horror, celebrity likeness, page art, cover art, drama and fine illustration. No, I never got to meet him, and I regret it. But Nick Cardy was instrumental in making me the comic book fan that I am today.

If there is a heaven, and I think there is, I'd like to think that Will Eisner is running the shop up there, with Kirby and Kubert and all the rest of them. It looks like their cover artist just showed up. I can't wait to read those comics. Rest in Peace, sir.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Birthdays and Thinking About What "Getting Older" Really Means

"Go away! Stop looking at me! MOOOOOOOM!"
I started this week in a foul mood. I'm not going to sugar coat it; it was my fault, entirely. It seems that I, for the first time in my life, forgot how old I was. Naturally, I was rounding down, instead of up, and even though my integer was only off by one year, it shook me up.

This has been a bad year, kinda, sorta, in that I sidelined several personal goals to handle some business for other people. Some of it was creative, and a lot of it was economic. But I've not been driving my own bus for about nine months now and I just recently wrested control of my vehicle back, to belabor a metaphor.

I didn't want any hoo-hah for my birthday. I'm turning 44. No, really, that's the actual number. Forty-Four. 4-4. Symmetry be damned, I was just not feeling it. So I told everyone that it was going to be just another day.

Thankfully, my wife chose not to listen. And since I didn't tell anyone else, the well wishes came rushing in via email, text, tweet, and a veritable deluge of FaceBook posts. I had a great breakfast, a good lunch, got a massage (which I desperately needed, it turns out), and basically took a mental health day. The few cards I got in the mail were all awesome, most especially the hand-made card my sister sent me that must have taken her a week to build. I got to catch up on some NCIS, and napped a little. Turns out, I needed all of that.

Happy Birthday, O Bringer of Food and Treats!
Is that for me?
Now it's the end of the day, and I just found out that Cathy and I have been cast in a radio theater production of "It's a Wonderful Life!" for the Backdoor Theatre's Christmas show. We're super thrilled about it, because we have been dying to do some radio theater for several years now.

Oh, and it looks like I have found a home for my Sailor Tom Sharkey stories. More details on that when everything is locked down.

2014 is going to be an aggressive expansion for me. Lots of things coming out for you to read and enjoy. I'm looking forward to 44. My bad mood was just that: mine, and mine alone. I don't feel old. I certainly don't feel any older. I'm not about to start attempting to "be" old, because of this weird idea that I'm just supposed to. That's not who I am. Never has been, so why start now? Pfft!

Thanks to all of you dear friends, family, fellow writers and artists, and chums from all over the world, for the great birthday wishes. I'm grateful for whatever brought us together, and I love you guys in whatever amount of affection isn't considered creepy and strange.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

13 Days Until Halloween

I've been pretty busy writing these Top 5 Lists lately, and so with 13 Days Until All Hallow's Eve, now is a good time to stop and recap for the season. Here's the full list, just in case you missed anything:


My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies

My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies


I've been researching old spook
shows lately. I'm thinking of
putting one on at the theater.
 You will notice it is far from complete. For example, I don't have any Mummy or Frankstein movies listed, and that's because I'm going to start working on a book in my spare time that will cover all of the above, and much more. The as-yet-unpublished lists will include things like Creatures From the Deep, Creatures on the Loose, Comedy-Horror, When Animals Attack, and a bunch of other, really specific lists, like the Top 5 Horror Movies that Need to be Remade, and the Top 5 Worse Horror Movie Remakes, and a bunch of other things like that. So, if you don't mind being patient with me, I'll drop some occasional lists in for your consideration, and we'll see about getting this booger published somewhere, okay?

And hey, as long as we're talking about it, if you think there are some Top 5 Lists I need to cover in this as-yet-untitled movie guide, please share them with me and if I use your topic as a list, I will include you in the acknowledgements in the book.

In the meantime, for those of you who like to build up to it, there's a lot of inspirational movie watching in the above lists to get you in the Halloween state of mind. Thanks to everyone who favorited, forwarded, or otherwise commented on these blog posts. We'll do it again soon!




Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies




Another Doozy from Vincent Price.
Before the modern slasher, these
kinds of movies had much stronger
and more traditional mystery plots.

In the last great renaissance of horror movies, roughly 1978 to 1888, we saw the emergence of a new kind of monster: the masked maniac, and they were legion. Inspired largely by the movies on this list, a horde of second, third, and fourth tier quickie, no-budget films literally spewed out of Hollywood like a Tom Savini neck wound, muddying the waters and diluting the quality, and incidentally, setting the bar for horror for a generation of people. Sympathetic monsters, like Frankenstein and poor Larry Talbot, were right out. In its place was the mute, force of nature, hulking menace wielding gardening implements straight out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

At the time, there was an emerging body of scholarship devoted to these films, and I readily tracked down whatever I could. Most of the popular opinion regarding the newfound fascination with horror was divided between the appeal of the Grand Guignol, or theater of blood, from Victorian France, and a resurgence of the kind of morality play that was performed during the Reformation and eventually transmogrified into fairie tales, proverbs, and in the 20th century, urban myths. Essentially, the gist of the story was this: good girls are spared, and bad girls get punished. The good are spared, and the wicked get what’s coming to them. An eye for an eye, literally.

All of this was gleefully, if not consciously, sublimated into films like The Driller Killer, Prowler, Maniac, Pieces, and one of the all-time cult classics, Sleepaway Camp, a film that almost made my top 5 list. It was the age of Fangoria, and these movies were meat and potatoes for the masses.

Then came the sequels...and oh god, the sequels...and no, really, the terrible, awful sequels...were any of them good? Not in terms of the larger story, but as movies? My short answer is no, no they were not. I know you probably have a favorite, and you watched all of the series, but they weren’t scary to you, were they? It was hard to take any of them seriously because of that unkillable nature. So, without considering the success or failure of what has become the new horror franchises, here’s my top five list based on jump scares, tension and quality filmmaking, and overall effectiveness of the first time we are introduced to the murderous maniac in question.


Dr. Phibes, unmasked at the organ. Seems familiar, huh?
The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)
A cool throwback from the shaggy-haired 1870s, starring the late, great Vincent Price in a role that closely resembles the turn he did in the less successful Theater of Blood. The film opens as a murder mystery, with prominent doctors being killed in weird and gruesome ways that end up being Biblical plagues. The evidence mounts and the madman is revealed, with some grim and grisly goings on in between.

Just a few years later, we’d get a new kind of masked killer that is inarticulate (see below), but playing ghoulish murderers was something Price excelled at for years. Dr. Phibes was one of his best, and certainly one of his most famous turns in this vein. It’s also one of the last times such a murderous maniac will have a shred of sympathy applied to him.


Don't mind us. We're just here for a wild party. Oh, and
to piss off the person who'd most like to kill a bunch
of irresponsible teen-agers.
Friday the 13th (1980)
This low budget slasher quickie really kicked off the Teen Slasher craze. Everything is great out at Camp Crystal Lake, except for those persistent rumors about the one kid that died, all those years ago... The first Friday the 13th is also noteworthy in that the series character that followed, one Jason Voorhees, isn’t actually the killer. Not yet, sorta. Kinda. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.

Granted, the deaths are gruesome and the movie is certainly informed by the earlier Halloween, but that doesn’t keep it from being and effective (and gory, thanks to special effects wizard Tom Savini) opening salvo for this particular brand of horror film.


Nice thousand-yard stare on young Michael Myers, there.
Who would dress their child up as a clown, anyway?
Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created a modern suspense-filled masterpiece with the first Halloween film. Take a creepy kid, straight out of the genre, and lock him up for twelve or thirteen years, and then have him get out on the eve of anniversary of his horrific murder, and add a teenaged Jamie Lee Curtis. Movie magic ensues.

Expertly shot with a minimum of gore, never mind what you think you remember, Halloween ratchets up the suspense and jump scares like a good roller coaster ride, with just a hint of the macabre and the supernatural provided by veteran British actor Donald Pleasance. I love Rob Zombie to death, but this is a movie that didn’t need to be remade.


"I'm your boyfriend now, Nancy!" Still one of the best scenes
in the whole movie. Too bad Heather Langenkamp was a
block of wood. A beautiful, empty shell of an actress.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven was already a known commodity when he created Fred Krueger, the child molester and murderer who was burned alive by the parents of his victims. But Krueger didn’t die, as you well know, and he’s haunting the dreams of the children in the neighborhood.

Inventive special effects, dream logic, crazy visuals, and best of all, a compelling reason for the maniac to be unkillable (how do you snuff a dream, anyway?) made Nightmare on Elm Street an overnight sensation. A baby-faced Johnny Depp didn’t hurt, either, but the acting takes a serious back door to Freddy and his dreamworld.

Leatherface's victory dance. See that light? Magic hour!
It's not all blood and guts and questionable casting choices.
There's some art to the movie, even if it's a lens flare.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Long before Michael Myers and Jason and even Freddy Krueger, there was Leatherface. Tobe Hooper shot this low-budget horror film in Texas in 1973, based very loosely on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and kids in small Texas towns have been swearing that the “actual murders” took place just down the road ever since.

Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, but the movie really struck a nerve with the viewing public. It was lionized and pilloried in equal parts for its graphic violence and nighmare imagery, but those reviews don’t give director Tobe Hooper his due credit. Believe it or not, there is a kind of subtlety underneath the screaming and the revving of the chainsaw. It’s a more clever movie, technically, than most people think it is.

But in the end, it is a movie about a cannibal family, and there’s something gleefully unhinged about Leatherface that is hard to pinpoint. Freddy is certainly clever as a nightmare tormentor, and while Michael and Jason don’t say anything, they take on the roles of silent “forces of nature” in stride. But Leatherface’s inarticulate bellows and his childlike glee reveal a kind of animal cunning that is truly unsettling. Anyone who is a fan of these kinds of movies cannot pass the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre up. Now, the sequels, on the other hand...

Drew Barrymore's bait and switch was a perfect way to
open the film. We're not going to follow the innocent-looking
blonde around. Instead, we're going to root for the
dangerous-looking brunette.
Bonus movie! Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s return to horror, an all-star cast (or, at least, they would go on to be an all-star cast), and a post-modern deconstruction of the genre he helped to invent make Scream one of the most successful movie maniac horror franchises of all time. There are so many nods, winks, and asides in this film that you really need a score card to keep them all straight. But Jamie Kennedy’s recitation of “The Rules” takes the film into meta-movie territory, as it’s the first time a horror movie actually played with its own tropes in the narrative.

Scream also subverts the genre in taking the seemingly supernatural and unkillable masked maniac to task with a Scooby Doo style solution. The film is equal parts slasher flick and murder mystery, and Craven mines the subject matter deeply. When we find out who’s actually doing it, we don’t stop to think that we’ve crossed over into Creepy Kid territory.

Scream certainly belongs in the masked maniac genre, but in fact, it really isn’t that kind of movie. Personally, I love that it plays with all of those conventions and yet is also almost a fair play mystery, something none of the masked maniac movies ever successfully tried to do. Ghost Face is no Michael Myers, but he was never supposed to be in the first place.