Coming soon: The World Needs Bad Men

As many of you know, whenever I’m quiet I’m busy. Lately I’ve been very quiet because I’ve been very busy with my biggest project to date: a collection of essays on True Detective Season 1. I’m still at work on the final pieces of the manuscript, but the book will be coming out this summer from the good folks at Sequart publishing.

Much like my essays already available on Sequart’s site, the book will focus on the genre elements as well as literature, film, musical and comics influences at work in the first season. Adam & Mark Stewart are contributing a excellent piece focusing exclusively on the comics influences and I’ve written a musical appendix listing all of the songs used in the show along with a brief analysis of how they contribute to the scenes in which they appear. Miguel Rodriguez of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and podcast also contributed some intriguing film suggestions for our related readings/ viewings appendix.

Stay tuned for more news and a release date!

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Revival Does Diversity Right

Revival, Vol. 1: You’re Among Friends

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These days there’s a lot of discussion around diversity in comics, both on the page and in the creative teams. There’s also a lot of noise about the “right” and “wrong” ways to add diversity to stories, most of which have more to do with personal taste than any objective standards of success. In light of all that, I want to nominate Revival as a series that is getting it right in all the best ways and pulling a cool twist on the nearly done-to-death (no pun intended) zombie genre.

One day in rural Wisconsin, the dead came back to life, but they don’t come back as zombies. The dead come back as themselves –  confused, disappointed, amazed and scared as everyone else around them. They are dubbed “revivers” and when a murder takes place at the same time as the revival, it’s unknown if these revivers really are who they appear to be. The event isn’t widespread; it’s limited to a single, sparsely populated county. The area is put under government quarantine as national media, religious zealots and conspiracy theorists descent gather to fan the flames of fear. We follow Officer Dana Cypress as she tries to solve a brutal murder and keep a lid on the mounting pressures of her community, family and personal life.

Author Tim Seely’s set-up is clever because it allows him to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of zombie stories. Everyone in the world of Revival already knows about zombies. They’re all aware of the Romero films, so Seely doesn’t need to waste any story time on characters struggling for a metaphor to understand what is happening. This frees Seely up to focus on the far more interesting personal struggles and conflicts his characters face. He also wisely limits the scope and duration of the revival event, which means that the story doesn’t get sidetracked with the possibility of everyone who dies over the course of it coming back to life. At the outset of the story there are a limited number of revivers. This allows Seely to switch the tension from panic over a growing horde of revivers to paranoia over undiscovered revivers hiding in the quarantined community. The fear is no longer of outsiders or others. The fear is that the familiar faces neighbors, friends and loved ones are harboring a dark secret. Who do you trust? Do you judge people by what you see on the surface or do you judge them by what you fear lurks beneath the surface?

In shifting the source of fear in Revival, Seely creates a story framework that emphasizes the relationships between characters, and in turn, the characters themselves. This is exactly the type of set-up that could be hampered by a lack of diversity in the cast. Every new gender, ethnicity, role, religion or class provides a new type of conflict or doubt between characters, another reason for characters to questions each others motives or to misunderstand their attempts to help. Seely chooses rural Wisconsin as his setting, an area where the population is usually assumed to be whiter than the snow that covers it all winter. In reality, the Midwest has a large Hmong population. Seely includes a Hmong community in the quarantined zone and fully incorporates it in the story. He also includes a Muslim man as the liaison from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing him to bring up the very real generalization and fear happening in the US today. Three of the main characters (Dana Cypress, her sister Em and the reporter, Ms. Tao) are women and none of them are one-dimensional. They each have complex lives with shifting responsibilities to family, job and self-satisfaction.

What is most impressive is how diversity adds to the organic nature of setting, character and conflict created in Revival. The central conflict – that the dead have risen – is not new, but it’s just a starting point for the story. The setting defines what type of characters can populate the story. Diversity of characters increases the possibilities that can come out of the main conflict. Each of these three elements acts upon the other, working together to create a single story and in Revival, that story is an imaginative twist on a familiar tale.

I also need to throw in a few words of praise for artist Mike Norton. His style is clean and expressive. I love the resemblances he gives family members. Norton also rewards those of us who “read” the pictures as much as the text by providing visual clues (Keep an eye on those police patches!) and visual irony (On her way to investigate a murder Officer Cypress passes a sign that proudly proclaims “The City of Wausau is a CRIME FREE COMMUNITY.”). And the cover is great. Look at it up there, dripping with black & white noir and the cold desolation of a Wisconsin winter.

That’s all the raving I have in me for today, so if you want to know more go pick up Revival!

San Diego Comic-Con: My Fountain of Youthful Enthusiasm

Most people use the start of a new year as a reset button on their lives; it’s a time for rebirth, refreshment of the mind and body and spirit. I’m a little different. For the past decade my year has reset in July at the San Diego Comic-Con. I roll in to the convention saddled with quotidian worries and I roll out exhausted, but brimming with new ideas and fresh enthusiasm for creation and collaboration.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for a lot of non-con goers to understand exactly why SDCC is so special to those of us who attend. I place some of the blame for this on the media. They cover the spectacle – the crowds, the costumes and the celebrity spotting. When I tell people that I attended Comic-Con, the first question is always, “What did you dress up as?” When I answer that I don’t dress up, people are confused. “So why do you go?” Whatever my answer, it never seems to fit their understanding of the event. It’s a frustrating situation for everyone.

This year I want to shed a little light on aspects of Comic-Con that are often left in the dark. There’s no way I could do justice to everything at SDCC in a single blog post, but I can share some of what I experienced. Highlights in no particular order:

  • Books! This year I kept my book buying to a minimum, but I came away with 13 new titles. You can see the full list on my Goodreads page . Obligatory book stack photo:
  • Only 13 books?
    Only 13 books?
  • Sequart Organization is devoted to the study of popular culture and the promotion of comic books as a legitimate artform. Tone and I enjoyed their documentary, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and stopped by their booth to check on their upcoming Neil Gaiman film. In the process we met Editor-in-Chief Mike Phillips and Webmaster Stuart Warren, both of whom seem like fun guys.
  • In the pro lounge I met Katie Cord, founder of Evil Girlfriend Media and Timothy W. Long, author of more zombie fiction than you can shake a partially gnawed femur at. We had a great conversation about everything from genre fiction to Wonder Woman’s new costume.
  • I missed the Masquerade this year, but listened to a recorded version of my friend Rogue’s group performing Be a Fan. It’s funny and sweet and super clever!
  •  In the dealer’s room I met Ave Rose and geeked out over her amazing steampunk/ taxidermy/ animated art. She brought an amazing possum creature from her Bestiary of the Automata collection. It was equal parts creepy, fascinating and beautiful.
  •  Since I can’t do a Comic-Con without getting a little horror in with my superheroes, I learned about the Los Angeles H.P. Lovecraft filmfest. It’s coming this September and features original short films, feature films, guests and special events. This year’s theme is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

 

 

Pusher (Wo)Man

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In which I answer the age old question, “Where do you find this stuff?”

Comic Con 2012 has come and gone, leaving my bookshelves full and my wallet empty. If you haven’t guessed, what I enjoy most about the convention is that it is a cornucopia of new and exciting reading material. Better yet, it’s a whole community of people who love books and come there to talk about and recommend new material. This year I received many good suggestions from the Witty Women of Steampunk panel, the Dystopian panel and my longtime favorite, the i09 Fiction That Will Change Your Life panel.  Here are a few that I’m particularly excited about:

Ready Player One: A Novel
Earnest Cline
A serenade to all 80’s based geek culture – equal parts epic quest, love story and virtual space opera.

Year Zero
Rob Reid
Humans may not be the most intelligent life form in the universe, but we’re the only ones that make music.  Unknown to us, alien cultures have been listening in to our tunes ever since we started broadcasting and now they want to go “behind the music”. When you throw in copyright law and intergalactic finance the situation only gets weirder.  This one was a Comic Con special and came with a memory stick loaded with music and readings by the author.

Shadow Show
Edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle
A short story collection tribute to the great Ray Bradbury, including submissions by Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers and many more.

Bedbugs
Ben H. Winters
As if the idea of tiny creatures that live in your bed and bite you while sleep wasn’t creepy enough, Ben Winters throws in a creepy brownstone, a secretive landlady, a young couple and psychological horror.

The Last Policeman: A Novel
Ben H. Winters
A police procedural set in a pre-apocalyptic United States raises an interesting question: What’s the point in investigating murders if we’re all going to die soon anyway?

Pictorial Webster’s:  A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities
John Carrera
A showcase of over 1,500 engravings that originally graced the pages of Webster’s dictionaries in the 19th century. I’ve already spent a few hours flipping pages and wondering at everything from Bell Jars to tarsiers. It makes a great visual prompt for any writer or artist.

Fatale, Book 1: Death Chases Me
Ed Brubaker
The first trade paperback of this Image comic book series, Fatale features hard-boiled secrets, lies, horror and lust from one of the best crime writers in the business.

Horns
Joe Hill
A man goes out drinking. The next morning he wakes up with a killer hangover and a pair of horns growing from his head. He also has the power to make people tell him their deepest, darkest secrets. Nothing good can come of this. Added bonus: I got a signed copy!

San Diego Book Awards 2012

Saturday night Tone and I attended the San Diego Book Awards banquet for the second time. The first time we went was in 2009, when Tone’s manuscript for Picking Up the Ghost was a finalist in the unpublished novel category. This time the published version of Picking Up the Ghost was a finalist in the published SciFi, Fantasy, & Horror category. Unfortunately, Picking up the Ghost didn’t win. I still think that being nominated twice isn’t too shabby!

The night wasn’t a total loss for the Milazzo household. A Year in Ink, Volume 4 , edited by Jericho Brown & Laurel Corona, won the short story collection/ anthology category. Since my short story, “Sleepwalking” is included in the collection, I can now say I’m published in an award winning book!

Armageddon in Retrospect

Title: Armageddon in Retrospect
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
ISBN: 978-0-425-22689-6

     I’m always wary of any posthumously published works by my favorite authors. That’s why I approached Armageddon in Retrospect, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays and short stories, with caution. Being a great writer isn’t just knowing what words to leave in a story, it’s knowing which words should be left out. If Vonnegut chose not to publish these works while he was alive, he must have felt that they were not his best. Part of me prefers to honor the body of work that Vonnegut chose to show us, not what he left on the cutting room floor. Still, there’s much to be learned about the craft of writing by seeing less polished pieces from talented authors. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think Armageddon in Retrospect does it well.

     The book contains both fiction and non-fiction pieces like speeches and letters. The non-fiction in Armageddon is classic Vonnegut:  a dose of rueful humor to sweeten the moral outrage. His speeches seem like the ramblings of an old man, circular and humorous. By the time he’s ready to make his point Vonnegut has touched your humanity, opened your heart just enough to feel what he’s saying rather than just hear it.

     The best piece in the book is the letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 after escaping a German prison camp. It is amazing.  Vonnegut takes only two pages to talk about his experience, covering all the facts up to where he is at the moment. It’s one of the most efficient pieces of communication I have ever seen. More than that, it appears to be the birth of his use of refrain.  When describing the death of some of his fellow soldiers Vonnegut says, “Many men died from shock. . . after ten days of starvation, thirst an exposure. But I didn’t.” The “but not me” refrain runs throughout his letter home, screaming his survivor’s guilt without ever addressing the topic directly.

     Most of the short stories in the collection are from early in Vonnegut’s career. He had not yet developed his trademark humor or learned to employ speculative fiction elements (like time travel) in to his work. Vonnegut’s anger in these early pieces is raw and often barely disguised by plot. These stories are not the easiest things to read. Still, they offer hope to struggling writers. If Vonnegut started out like this, it’s possible to keep working, to keep searching until you develop a style that allows you to tell even the most complicated of stories.

     Ultimately, I enjoyed Armageddon and recommend it to all Vonnegut fans. I enjoyed Armageddon – now how many people can say that?

Shameless Spousal Promotion, part II

Picking up the Ghost has published! It’s available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and lots of other book sellers. It’s written by Tone Milazzo, a man who, through a series of coincidences and misadventures, happens to be married to me. Of course, this in no way colors my glowing recommendation of his book. I’m not joking. It’s awesome.

I am, in fact, so enthusiastic about Picking Up the Ghost that I wrote a piece of flash fiction featuring a couple of characters of the book. Hope you enjoy the story and feel inspired to pick up a copy of Picking Up the Ghost!

Who He is not

He shuffles his identities as quickly and easily as he shuffles a deck of cards. The shapeshifter is at one with change. You can not catch the shapeshifter because the day you grab him, he is a different man than he was the day you met him. He is all about chance, luck and today.

The shapeshifter was a riverboat gambler once. He floated down the wide Mississippi, with a striped shirt, suspenders and a handlebar mustache. He wore the name Tennessee Slim and dealt cards to the wealthy pleasure seekers, watching them win and lose fortunes on the green felt of his gaming table. That was yesterday. The shapeshifter is not Tennessee Slim today.

The shapeshifter was an insurance salesman once. He worked in an office under fluorescent lights and rode the bus home to his cold bachelor’s apartment. He wore the name Robbie Freeman during the day and the name GamblinMan88 in online poker rooms at night. That was yesterday. The shapeshifter is not Robbie Freeman today.

The shapeshifter was a drifter once. He drove a car with tinted windows and New Mexico plates. He sniffed the wind off long stretches of hot asphalt for any sign of change. He wore the name Ted Lopez. He had a bag of tools, a deck of cards and a teen-aged boy to steal from. That was yesterday. The shapeshifter is not Ted Lopez today.

The shapeshifter was a teen-aged boy once. He stood by the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride and nursing his injured hand. He wore the name Cinque Williams and it did not fit him. He had a missing father, a screwdriver, a dream of an African Hougun and a burning need for answers. This is today. The shapeshifter is Cinque Williams today.

The shapeshifter pulls out his deck of cards and shuffles. It doesn’t matter what name he wears. The shapeshifter can not stand still on the side of a road. Stillness is death to him and he has cheated death for a very long time. The shapeshifter does not know it, but his luck is about to change.

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

Title: Meanwhile
Author: Jason Shiga
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8423-3

Chocolate or Vanilla? This one mundane choice is what launches you into a world of time travel, mind reading and mad science in Jason Shiga’s book Meanwhile. Shiga, the winner of the 2003 Eisner “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” award, lives up to his reputation as one of the most innovative storytellers working today.

Meanwhile is deceptively simple. The story is told in clean, spare panels strung together in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. With thick, glossy pages the book looks almost like a children’s book. Each time you make a choice the panels diverge and you must follow a twisty line to the next episode of the story. The lines double and re-double, forcing you to trace them across the page with your finger before following them to a new page. This format creates a book that is not just read, it is played. The reader is an active participant in the telling of the story. At some points the act of going back to the last break in the string and choosing a new path can be a bit tedious, but the results are rewarding. There are 3,856 story possibilities in this 80 page book. If you stop at 5 or even 10 story possibilities you will end up missing much of what this book has to offer.

In creating a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book Shiga could have given his readers a galaxy of choices. After all, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books were great for the fantasy and science fiction genres, allowing readers to hop through vast and strange new worlds. In Meanwhile Shiga does the opposite, leading his reader to three key choices in the form of machines to use: time machine, kill-box or mind-reading device. By setting these limitations Shiga creates a closed loop of a world that is anything but boring. The story, like the lines between panels, starts to double and re-double, creating a sense of déjà vu. Keep going. It only gets stranger.

Ultimately, Meanwhile isn’t just about showy page layout or leading readers through a trippy adventure. It’s an open invitation to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (No joke!) and an exploration of the power behind the tiny decisions we make every day.  It’s a special book and well worth the read.

The Engineer: Konstrukt

Title: The Engineer: Konstrukt
By: Brian Churilla (author/artist) and Jeremy Shepherd (author/colorist)
ISBN: 9781932386547

The Engineer: Konstrukt starts fast, laying out the central conflict on page one of the book. An immense, ancient entity of the Lovecraftian variety is devouring the universe. One thing can stop it: the Konstrukt, an equally ancient device of mysterious origins. The only catch is that the Konstrukt is broken, its many cogs and wheels scattered throughout the fabric of space and time. The Engineer is one man tasked with finding these pieces and reassembling the Konstruct, enabling life as we know it to go on. With that out of the way, the rest of the book is monsters, action and weirdness.

It’s a great concept, but Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd fail to deliver an interesting story. Space travel and monster bashing are fun, but standard fare in the world of comics. There is nothing new or particularly fun in the Engineer’s character. The majority of the dialog in the book consists of the Engineer talking to himself while he fights monsters. Even he seems to get bored of his own running commentary and starts to repeat lines line “That wasn’t so bad!” and “How do like that?” Another problem is that the book has transition issues. While reading, I stopped multiple times and flipped back a few pages, thinking I had skipped a page or that I had missed a key panel, but that wasn’t the case. The story just makes awkward jumps from one scene to another. There’s also a running joke about chickens that falls flat. It seems to be an attempt at Eric Powell (The Goon) style humor, but it comes off as forced and a bit distracting.

The weakness of the writing is especially noticeable against the brilliance of the art in The Engineer. Churilla’s line work is great, clearly influenced by Mike Mignola, but not a slavish copy. There is a fluid quality to his drawing. His style has a smoothness that captures all the necessary detail, but omits anything that would clutter up the scene. There are no throwaway panels here – each one looks as if it could be blown up and made in to a poster. Shepherd’s colors add depth and emotion to the line work. The ethereal blue glow of the Konstruct parts is especially arresting.

Churilla and Shephard are clearly talented individuals, but ultimately The Engineer: Konstrukt is a book that makes for better viewing than reading.

 

The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock

Title: The Unwritten Vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock
Author: Mike Carey (Author), Peter Gross (Artist)
ISBN: 9781401230463

If you haven’t started reading Unwritten yet, please do so at your soonest convenience. You are missing out on a New York Times best selling, Eisner-nominated bit of brilliance.  Unwritten is a meta-fantasy in the mold of Fables, focusing on the role that stories play in our lives and culture.  The protagonist, Tommy Taylor, is the adult son of an author who penned a series of children’s books similar in scope and fame to Harry Potter. Tommy’s father disappeared under mysterious circumstances and left his son a problematic legacy.

Dead Man’s Knock pushes the envelope of self-conscious fiction, exploring the idea of a literary franchise. After years of silence, a publisher announces that Tom Taylor’s father is releasing the long awaited final volume in the Tommy Taylor series. A media and fan frenzy ensues. Questions swirl – Is the book really written by Wilson Taylor? Will it be good? Will it be what the fans expect? – but no one asks, “Will the book sell?” In omitting this question Carey and Gross emphasize the raw power of a successful series. Of course the book will sell. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or whether or not it’s good. In a world of closing book stores and declining print sales, that sort of power is rare. In fact, it’s almost magical.

Carey and Gross outdo themselves in this volume, dedicating an entire issue to Lizzie Hexam’s origins. They deliver a compelling back story for her character told in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. It’s well worth the time to flip back around and follow all the story possibilities included in this Eisner Award winning issue.
Seriously people, get out and read this thing!