Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

That’s the dream, right? Pack the bags and fuck off to some far-away place for an indulgent period of time to write, research, absorb your surroundings, and write some more.

If you’re like me, and I expect many of you are, you rarely get further than the closest convenient coffeehouse or bar.

But still the dream persists. We hold onto that “What if?” We Google the hell out of that dream destination. We scribble notes for that dream project that we would tackle if only time, money, and life permitted.

So, inspired by a conversation this weekend with a fellow writer, here’s my list of Top 5 dream writing vacation destinations and what I’d work on while I was there.

Mexico City

I’ve heard nightmare stories about Mexico City for years. Mostly by people who watched the movie Man on Fire or have a view colored by their interpretation of crime statistics filtered third hand through other people. Is there crime in Mexico City? Of course. There’s crime everywhere. And it’s a huge city with some extreme disparity of wealth from neighborhood to neighborhood.

But it’s also beautiful city rich with art, culture, and history. A good friend visited there recently and every photo she posted made me want to visit more. Ok, maybe not every photo. I’m still not sure about the consumption of chile-roasted grasshoppers, though I hear they’re delicious. I just can’t wrap my taste buds around that yet.

But a month to wander around, hit the museums and libraries, the markets and cafes–that would be incredible.

I have a short story I want to do about a couple of occult “problem solvers” who themselves happen to be dead. It was inspired by a drawing that same travelling friend did. I’d also really love to write some early Gato Loco stories, maybe a novel, that take place during the beginning of his vigilante career. And I can’t imagine a better way to capture that spirit than some full immersion.

Paris

I’ll admit, I didn’t really see the appeal of Paris until a few years ago.

Ok. So I was wrong.

A month hanging out on the Left Bank, living on black coffee and pastry at outdoor cafes with a notebook on my table? Yeah, that’s pretty much perfect. Give me a camera to capture the buildings, the streets, the flow of the city, and I’ll be in heaven.

I’ve been thinking of writing a series of short mystery stories featuring Jean-Paul Sartre, one of my dad’s heroes. I picture him and Simone de Beauvoir in post-war Paris solving mysteries. Tie that in with some Existentialism and the atmosphere of the city at that time and it practically writes itself. Though I’d really want to soak up as much of that Paris atmosphere–and coffee–that I could before I undertake that kind of endeavor.

New England

I’ve never been to New England. Odd that I’ve been drawn to setting stories there in the last several years. Maybe my brain is trying to tell me something.

On top of setting Cobalt City there just south of Boston in the crook of Cape Cod, I’ve also got a (languishing) punk rock fable called Winter Lullaby set in the fictional western Connecticut town of Devil’s Gap, and the ostensibly YA project Tastes Like Teen Spirit about a young cannibal who falls in love with a serial killer in Pluto Falls, New Hampshire. Also fictional.

But give me a month, preferably October, to pack up a rental and drive from town to town on back roads, stopping where I need, writing where I can, making myself sick on red leaves, apple pie, and maple syrup, and I promise you, I’ll find those fictional towns.

Fez, Morocco

I’ve been wanting to go to Morocco for decades. I want to go to Fez, the high mountain city that happens to be home to one of the world’s oldest universities, in particular. I’ve been fascinated by the Almoravid period, in particular (1040-1147), for much of that time.

Though I’d want to incorporate much of my month there into a big, optimistic sci-fi novel, mostly I’d want to write non-fiction. Essays about the use of public space in Moroccan culture, and studies of urban design. So, lots of time sipping mint tea at cafes (you see a theme by now, I expect), and walking the narrow streets. Taking language classes in the afternoon, maybe even a camel tour out into the Atlas mountains to see a little bit of the countryside.

As for that sci-fi novel, it’s going to take place in three locations. One is near orbit, so that’s out of the travel plans. The part that takes place in Morocco involves a former NASA astronaut, the last American to go to space, who is finding a late-in-life career as a consultant to a pan-African space program that is building an orbital launch platform in an international race to send a manned mission to Mars. He gets caught up in the intrigue and politics of the mission, very much a stranger in a strange land.

But I feel I need to have that experience to do it justice.

As for the third part of the book…

Cameroon

I’ll be honest. I don’t know how I landed on Cameroon when I was looking at African countries near the Equator to set the other third of this book. Something about the country just grabbed my imagination. I’ve decided the launch platform for the space agency is located there, and one of the three main characters is a mid-level security supervisor for the site who begins to suspect a plot to sabotage the program. And when he is attacked and left for dead, he figures out someone on the inside, higher up on the chain of command, is part of the conspiracy.

Of all the five travel destinations, this one is the biggest wild-card. I don’t know much about Cameroon. In fact, one of the deciding factors might have been their national basketball or soccer team snagging my innate love of underdog sports teams. But I’ve been wanting to visit Africa for a long time, and it’s a huge continent with even more huge cultural diversity. At some point, you just have to roll those dice and open yourself up to the experience.

That is, if I ever get the resources to do any of these writing vacations.

In the meantime, there’s always the coffeehouse across the street.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

Gato Loco + Shadow

The devil rides tonight!

I don’t know how other authors do it, but at least in my case, it’s uncommon for a character to leap fully-formed from brain to paper. I find that often times the character comes together in bits and pieces until they’re ready to be seen. And even then, they can continue to evolve over time. For me, it’s one of the most compelling things about writing.

So, let’s take a look at Gato Loco.

Gato Loco began not as Gato Loco, but as Manuel de la Vega, a swashbuckling hero created for a 7th Sea RPG somewhere around 1999-2000. Inspired by the character Richard St Vier from Ellen Kushner’s fantastic novel Swordspoint, he was driven to be the best swordsman around. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I highly suggest it. Courtly manners, dashing swordplay, and a fabulous gay protagonist. The game only lasted a few sessions before personalities caused it implode, but during that brief run, Manuel did get the chance to mask up to conceal his identity. Making an improvised mask from a bit of curtain, he proclaimed himself el grande pantalones. Yes. The swashbuckler known as The Big Pants.

It should be pointed out, my Spanish at the time was pretty much non-existent.

I liked something about his personality enough that when I ran an even shorter term superhero game on the Paladium superhero RPG, I brought him back. This time many of the familiar elements of the character were present: black leather cycling suit, cat-head helmet, sleek motor cycle, nimble, and a little bit psychic. Much of this visualization was inspired by the look of Kaneda in the manga/movie Akira. Swap out his red costume for black, slap on a helmet, and you’re there. He even had the iconic giant laser gun known from the end of the movie. However, he wasn’t even called Gato Loco yet. Instead, he used the name Krazy Kat.

In 2002, Green Ronin released the Mutants & Mastermind RPG, and a distillation of Manuel de la Vega surfaced again in a game run for my kids and girl friend (and then wife) over the summer. This time, I dropped the laser, added the familiar stage-field generator force fields, and adopted the name Gato Loco (both because Krazy Kat was a cartoon cat and at this time the character of Wild Kat was being added to the setting). This game which came to be known as the Mysterious Five also saw the creation of the Tesla Twins, Mister Grey, the Society of Evil Geniuses (including Kara Sparx, Lumien, and Nicodemus Candledark).

It then spun out into a big blow-out one-shot game that saw the Icons leave Earth, followed by a massive extra-dimensional invasion that allowed me to bring most of the core of the next iteration of the game. This was the longest run period of Gato Loco as a character, even though he’d largely been side-lined to a support character in favor of Mister Grey. During this period, the Protectorate took shape and I started taking writing seriously again.

Part of that was writing the Gato Loco story “Masks.” While an early story, it helped solidify the shape of Gato Loco as a fiction character, and the shape of the Cobalt City universe as a something other than a game setting. Encouraged by Kathleen, Wild Kat’s creator, I undertook writing a novel for the first time in my adult life. I chose to write a Cobalt City novel, the book that became Cobalt City Blues. In it, I told an epic story that was logistically impossible to run as a game–too many solo elements. It had been written for fun. Just something to share among the players in the game. And not only did it give me a chance to tell a big chunk of Gato Loco story, it brought back the giant cutting laser not seen since the old Paladium game–though this time it was wielded by the panda Snowflake. And the chemistry between Manuel and Snowflake was undeniable.

Cobalt City Blues ended up became something enduring. Much to my surprise.

Then in November 2005, in the middle of some huge life changes, I decided to undertake National Novel Writing Month. That month, I wrote Greetings from Buena Rosa. Taking part a year after the dissolution of the Protectorate, it was yet another evolution of Manuel de la Vega. Crippled by the events that led to the end of the Protectorate, he hadn’t been Gato Loco for a year. Forced out of retirement to help a cousin in a Mexican border town, it focused on Manuel as a detective looking for his place in the world rather than the grim specter of Cobalt City. It and the subsequent book allowed me to kind of go back to his roots as a cycle racer and detective, travelling around the country with Snowflake.

And now, I’m evolving him yet again: back in Cobalt City, legs and spine damaged beyond the point where he can wear the Gato Loco suit, he’s busy training his replacement and figuring out what’s next. Gato Loco may not ride anymore, but Manuel de la Vega goes on.

I look forward to exploring that in future stories on my Patreon.

If you’re not a subscriber yet, you might want to look into it. I expect to have a new Manuel de la Vega story posted sometime in June.

 

header

I saw a meme going around the Social-Media-Sphere™ this morning, a listy kinda meme, where you list several bands in a Band you Hate, Band you feel is Over-rated, Guilty Pleasure Band…kind of a gang of five musical Fuck/Marry/Kill situation. And I considered doing it. Because the kind of music a person listens to (or doesn’t listen to, or if they don’t even like music at all) says a lot about them.

But the truth is, it was an impossible list. I don’t know if I genuinely HATE any band. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who it seems it’s now fashionable to hate), have a song or two I like. And I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I either like a band or I don’t. I’m not going to feel an ounce of fucking shame for jamming out to Spice Girls “Stop” or Barenaked Ladies “The Old Apartment.”

And as for picking a single favorite band?

Go fuck yourself. Who does that? Who CAN do that? I’ve never had a single favorite band. Instead, I’ve periodically narrowed it down a glacially rotating roster of top five favorite bands. Sometimes another band will put out a brilliant album and replace a long-time roster holder, but these have been relatively constant for some time. So, without further ado, my 5 Favorite Bands.

Aimee Mann

I still remember my formative teen years when I (and the rest of the country) discovered Til Tuesday. For most people, the fascination began and ended with their hit song “Voices Carry.” But some of us bought every single one of their albums. And when singer/songwriter Aimee Mann split out to do her own thing and record solo albums some of us followed along with her then, too.

Such a singular voice. Sharp, witty as hell lyrics. Excellent musicianship. And determined to do her own damn thing. She’s been off the radar for a little while, but just released a new album that might be the best thing she’s written. Considering her previous one came out over a decade ago, it was long overdue.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve chosen something off the earlier album, The Forgotten Arm–a concept album that draws its name from a boxing term. It’s a fantastic album, and you should give it a listen. And her new one, Mental Illness, too. Anyway, here’s “Little Bombs.”

New Model Army

My kid brother introduced me to New Model Army over 30 years ago. I’m still a fan. My first tattoo, over 20 years ago, is the Celtic knot from the cover of Thunder and Consolation. I point to this album in particular as being the cornerstone to my early politicization. Justin Sullivan’s lyrics are uncompromising, angry, righteous, and hopeful.

These guys are one of the champions of my top 5 list. They’ve been on it pretty consistently for a long damn time. It doesn’t hurt that they keep cranking out incredible albums. I’d long worried I’d never be able to see them live due to visa issues for most of their career. But I got lucky 11 years ago and found out about a local show at a small venue that very night, and moved heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve seen them twice more since, and each time is the closest I’ve had to what I think of as a religious experience.

For your sample song, I present “Believe It” off the incredibly now hard to find album The Love of Hopeless Causes, one of the three best albums they ever produced. For a follow up, I highly suggest their newest album, Winter, which rocks just as hard.

Ben Folds Five

It was Sunday night in 1996 and I was sitting around watching 120 Minutes on MTV with my mom, back when they still showed music videos. 120 minutes was my favorite show on the network, as it showcased off-of-center bands and music. Their two-hour showcase of alternative music. And my mom was watching with me because she was waiting for my kid brother to either come home or call from the police station. You know how kids are. Anyway, that was the first time I ever heard Ben Folds Five, the song “Underground,” off their debut album. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget, and tracked the CD down next chance I got.

See, I used to play piano. I’m drawn to piano musicians. In fact, from here on out, it’s all piano players, so get out now if you can’t roll with that.

And Ben Folds played the fuck out of those ivories. I’d be hard pressed to name another artist quite like him, piano yet punk. And his bass player, Robert Sledge is just a dynamo. While I love Ben Fold’s solo stuff, too, it’s really the stuff with his original trio that grips me by the short hairs. In particular, the masterwork that is The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

Damn, such a solid album. So, I’ve chosen one of his quieter songs off that album for your introduction, “Mess,” performed live because these guys are something else live.

Joe Jackson

I bought my first Joe Jackson album, Night and Day on the strength of the single “Stepping Out” through one of those 14 cassettes for a penny clubs in the age of antiquity. And I’ll be honest. I didn’t like it. But I kept coming back to it.

Call it Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe just maturing tastes. But I eventually came to love that album. And here’s the thing with Joe. He keeps mixing it up, experimenting with different lineups, different sounds, different styles. Some, you might not like. Some you might love.

But he’s never boring. He surrounds himself with top-notch musicians, like the very deep bass of Graham Maby or percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. And his live shows need to be seen to be believed, as he frequently re-arranges his old songs to suit the new lineups. Case in point, his song “Is She Really Going Out With Him” appears three times on his incredible double live CD, and each is distinctly different.

Your provided sample is the live recording  of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)” that swaps out the brass section for Vinnie Zumo on guitar.

Billy Joel

Billy Joel was my first piano man, the first pop/rock star I ever became a fan of. In fact, in junior high, I didn’t listen to ANY pop music outside a scattering of soundtracks (Urban Cowboy and Heavy Metal being the two that come to mind). But I eventually succumbed to the Billy Joel. It was hard not to. He was everywhere!

But for my money, the earlier stuff, the albums before he hit it big with The Stranger? Those albums are all amazing. When I had to write a paper in my AP English class senior year about someone I admired, I wrote it about Billy Joel. I had three volumes of his his sheet music for piano, and would hammer the hell out of the keys trying to master “Angry Young Man” or “Captain Jack.”

By far my favorite album of his is Turnstiles, the one that marked the formation of the lineup that would stick with him through his peak. It also marked his return to New York after several years living in and recording in Los Angeles. I used to sing along to this on cassette in the back of the bus on Knowledge Bowl and Speech Team trips.

Because I was cool.

I still remember him playing this at the first Farm Aid, and it’s a prime example of why I love Billy so much. God. When he finally shuffles off this mortal, I’m going to be devastated, so fingers crossed he has many, many more happy years. Anyway, here’s “Summer, Highland Falls.”

In news that might not surprise many of you, I’m one of those bastards who loves musical theater. No joke. Couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. Found my mom’s album of My Fair Lady and never looked back. Now, my tastes have evolved considerably in that time. So much so, that there’s nothing from old-school musicals on this list. If you’re a fan of South Pacific, prepare to be disappointed. But at least I stuck to shows that originated on stage. And there are several on here that are at least a few decades old. I’ve also made a conscious effort to only list one song from any given composer. Otherwise this would skew heavily towards Jason Robert Brown. (Ok, I lied, I included two from JRB. It was a game-time decision. Don’t hate me. He’s so good!)

You’re welcome.

Also, for the Hamilheads out there, I didn’t include anything from Hamilton on this list, though I was tempted. It basically came down to the fact that Hamilton has so much exposure right now, I’d rather give that slot to a somewhat less-exposed show.

So, in alphabetical order and without further ado, it’s showtime!

Beautiful City from Godspell

I came across this musical as a kid on television in my grandparent’s basement. I had no idea what it was. It was strange. It had gutter-clowns, and some guy in a Superman-like t-shirt. And it was kind of Jesus-y. (Yes, I was very young and didn’t get a lot of churchin’.) It kind of fell off my radar until my late teens when my friend Eric re-introduced me to the soundtrack in his den. He later played Judas in the college production, thus confirming that Judas is okay in my book.

The book of the musical is not my favorite, but man, the music from Stephen Schwartz is so good. And “Beautiful City” has recently become my favorite from the show. I like the message of hope. And the revival cast from a few years ago was outstanding, which is part of why I chose this version to share.

Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar

Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this is the one that resonated with me. I know. It’s weird. And it’s merely by virtue of the alphabet that these two songs are back to back. I swear, the music gets to sinnin’ pretty quick after this.

My first wife got me hooked on JCS. So much so that I used to have an Easter tradition with a friend of mine. We’d cook up a feast and sing along at the top of our lungs. So maybe it’s timely this ends up in my list right before Easter. I’ve been doing the Norwescon convention the last several years which always falls on Easter weekend, and I’m missing those sing-alongs.

For my money, there’s no better Judas than Carl Anderson.

History of Wrong Guys from Kinky Boots

I love the movie Kinky Boots. I didn’t have any idea how they’d pull it off as a musical. Then they got Cindy Lauper to do the music.

Sold.

I don’t know what to say about this song other than the fact that it’s infectiously fun.

I love Annaleigh Ashford’s delivery. Strongest or best song in the musical? Probably not. But favorite? Yes, hands down.

Home (Reprise) from The Wiz

There are a lot of versions of this. Well, of course there are. Written by Charlie Smalls, this song is just an outstanding showcase for a great vocalist. And I went with the Diana Ross version for the very simple reason that she was my introduction to this song and musical.

I was a sheltered nine-year old living in rural Colorado when this came out. I either went to the theater to see it myself or dragged along my kid brothers. And I loved it. LOVED it. Sure, Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on Broadway might have been a better Dorthy. I didn’t know, and at the time I couldn’t really care. This movie was magic. And this song still hits me in the gut each and every time I hear it.

I’m Going Home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Damn that Richard O’Brian, but he writes a catchy torch song. And Tim Curry just sings the shit out of it. That said, my feelings about this musical are complicated. It’s not a good musical, the material is problematic as hell, but it has great music. It’s also impossible to watch with other people without them shouting along. Sometimes, I just want to listen to the music, much like I did the first several times I heard it–on a record at my friend Ivan’s house.

I’ve also done this one at karaoke a few times. Damn, just such a good song about coming to the end of a road and realizing the ride is over. For some of us, far too soon.

Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George

If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite Broadway composer was, I would have said Stephen Sondheim without hesitation. That’s largely on the merit of how much this musical changed my life. I came across the musical on Great Performances on PBS about halfway through the first song and knew I needed it in my life almost immediately. For years, the only way I could watch this show was on an unlabeled VHS tape with part of a song missing. I have long since upgraded to better versions. And my friends Aarron and Michaela took me to see the revival for my birthday when it toured here almost a decade ago.

For years, the song “Finishing the Hat” was something of a theme song for me. It’s only been edged out in recent years by this one. The first is almost an argument Georges Seurat has with himself, that yes, he’s missing out on life, but that his art is worth it. But Lesson #8 reflects a bit more of where I am now. This feeling of being lost, questioning your artistic direction or if the journey is even worth it some days. I suspect all artists experience this from time to time. And Mandy Patinkin really sells it, too.

George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George too may fade leaving no mark, just passing through. Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”

Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

With music by Stephen Trask and book by it’s initial star, John Cameron Mitchel, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was like nothing else I’d ever seen. This song, in particular evokes David Bowie, which always works for me. And I went with this recording from the movie because it’s just so goddamned triumphant.

Sweet baby jesus, it gives me chills. I could, and have, listened to it on a loop a dozen times in a row. I can’t think of a better example of how we use music to discover our own sense of identity.

Never Get Married from Honeymoon in Vegas

Did I tell you I love Jason Robert Brown? I love Jason Robert Brown. He’s got a great ear for a hook and his lyrics are clever as hell. The idea of a musical based on an old Nic Cage movie is a weird idea. But damn if he doesn’t pull it off. The fact that this show was so overlooked breaks my heart. It’s fun and clever (and not without some problematic material, particularly in how it portrays Hawaii), and holy hell, it had Tony Danza tap dancing!

It’s pure Broadway.

This song, in particular, is just fun. It’s like something you’d expect to see on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Nancy Opel kills it as the mom to bewildered Rob McClure.

See I’m Smiling from The Last Five Years

Consider this your daily double dose of Jason Robert Brown. Hey, I could have thrown in stuff from Parade as well if I wanted, but I wanted to keep it reasonable. But damn, this show is so good. A strange concept, yes–five years of a relationship portrayed by two people, one moving from front to back, one from back to front.

The way it changes moods on a dime is incredible. Some songs are light and fun. Some are a slow knife to the ribs but in the best way possible. Then some transition in the middle with little warning. Like this one, that goes from hopeful to angry to resigned in a way I’ve seen real relationships do far too often in my life.

Really, the bridge just kills me. And while I have much love for Anna Kendrick who recently did this in the movie, there’s no substitute for Sherie Rene Scott from the original recording.

Telephone Wire from Fun Home

Got your tissues ready?

Good.

You’ll need them.

This musical came out of nowhere and kicked some ass at the Tony Awards a couple of years back. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics & book by Lisa Kron, it was based on the great graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. It deserved every Tony it won. Such a great show. It’s playing here in Seattle this summer and I can hardly wait.

That said, I’m likely to cry myself to death. This song, where a woman looks back at trying to have a real conversation with her dad–her, a recently out college student, and him a closeted married man. A complicated relationship at best, it provides no easy answers for either character. And it’s one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater I’ve ever heard.

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

This will be my fourth consecutive Norwescon, and my third year coordinating the Horror track–one of the highlights of my year. I don’t have that busy of a convention this year, which is nice. I’m looking forward to being a fly on the wall for several panels (particularly Horror’s Role in Perpetuating Fear of the Other on Friday afternoon 1-2pm in Cascade 9 and the Fear of God(s) which will discuss religious themes in horror Saturday afternoon, 2-3 in Cascade 2&3). And much to my surprise there will be karaoke on Thursday night in the Evergreen room from 8-11, and I can’t miss that.

Ah, but for panels I’ll actual scheduled appearances, they are as follows:

Thursday

Adult Comics vs. Mature Comics: 8-9pm in Cascade 10 with a great lineup of panelists and friends, so this should be a hoot.

Paranoia (Will Destroy Ya): 9-10pm in Cascade 5&6 will discuss the use of paranoia in horror fiction and how to write it.

Friday

The Kids Aren’t All Right: 6-7pm in Cascade 5&6 in which we discuss the trope of evil children in horror media.

The GameMaster’s Manifesto Podcast – GMing From the Hip: 7-8pm in Cascade 3&4 where I’ll be part of an expert panel/podcast about running a game with little preparation, something I know all too much about.

Saturday

Autograph Session 1: 2-3pm in Grand Ballroom 2 where I’ll be holding down a table in a room full of peers. I’ll have a few books available, as well as inexpensive (and limited edition) chapbooks of “Hell is a Parade” available. Or bring your own copy of something for me to sign. Several tables in the dealer hall will have anthologies featuring my stories as well. I believe Selfies from the End of the World, That Ain’t Right, and By Faierie Light at the very least will be for sale around the convention, and all three are great anthologies.

Location, Location, Location: Horror’s Unsung Character: 9-10pm in Cascade 5&6 where we will tackle the real star of good horror fiction and how to write it well.

Sunday

Get ‘Em While They’re Young – YA Horror: 1-2pm in Cascade 10, because every obsession starts somewhere.

In addition, I’ll try and post up in the bar for the un-official bar-con from time to time, but I’m really watching my budget this year. Looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and meeting some brand new ones this year!

What the Future Holds for Patrons

Posted: February 28, 2017 in Uncategorized
Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

patreon
I expect by now you’ve likely heard that I’m undertaking a Patreon model to incentivize me to create Cobalt City short fiction. If not, this is your notice. Click on the link above and you’ll go to the site.

Don’t worry. I’ll ask you to click on the link again after I explain to you, and to my existing patrons, a bit more about what I’m going to be doing there.

Now, in a perfect world, Cobalt City would be something you’d all read in comic book format. After all, that’s where people expect to read superhero stories, right? I don’t have that luxury because 1) I’m not a comic book artist nor do I run a comic book publishing company, and 2) a whole new world of unknown superheroes by someone new to the comics field is pretty much doomed to failure. The only way to make these stories, these characters happen, is through fiction, which I’m okay with. But damn if I wouldn’t love good character art for each of the heroes so I could someday run into cosplayers or fan artists. Ah, dare to dream, I guess.

For those familiar with the characters of Cobalt City, they may be wanting more detail. Currently, I play on setting these stories in two distinct time periods: the “Weird Hero” period of the Seventies, and Contemporary as heroes grapple with the new normal of rising White Nationalism and corrupt and fascist leaders.

During the Weird Heroes movements of the big 2 (Marvel/DC), we saw such characters & books as Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, Satana, Daimon Hellstrom, Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, Creeper, Ragman, Werewolf by Night, and Tomb of Dracula. It put the focus on black magic, the supernatural, or just plain odd. To honor that, the Seventies-set stories I’ll be doing will occasionally deal with a wave of forgotten, old, or minor gods sliding back into public consciousness and causing problems. This Small Gods arc will feature individual and occasional group stories featuring the nomadic, cycle-riding anti-hero The Devil’s Daughter, the Vietnam vet avatar of Thor known as Cole “Midnight Thunder” Washington, Doctor Shadow back when he was known as The Black Hand, and the vampiric monster hunter The Venetian.

The other stories feature: an ongoing arc with Huntsman and Libertine going to ground to train up his two young successors after his secret identity is leaked to the press; an ongoing arc where everyone’s favorite bisexual Vietnamese anti-hero Bantam works to deconstruct a massive government conspiracy on behalf of former mob assassin Xia Lo, the Harlequin; and an anthology format of solo and team-up stories staring Gallows, Caterwaul, GhostHouse, Kraken, and Madjack–as new and established heroes being brought together as the new Icons by hacker Morgan Lee, the Wrecker of Engines.

Despite the structure of some of these overarching narratives, each story will be self-contained and can be read independently. And as I complete each “season,” the stories will be collected into e-book and possibly print releases. (Though one of the Patreon tiers includes print copies of each story as they’re published in a limited run chapbook format.)

Several of these characters have appeared in other places. Midnight Thunder first appeared in the Timeslip anthology and to a lesser degree in Cobalt City Double Features. The Marcus Castile Huntsman was also in Timeslip, as well as in the novels Chanson Noir, Cobalt City Blues, and has made occasional appearances in the Kensei stories from Jeremy Zimmerman. Libertine has been in the Dark Carnival anthology as well as Cobalt City Blues. Bantam and Xia Lo appeared in the novel Cobalt City: Ties that Bind. Gallows has appeared in Cobalt City Christmas as well as Cobalt City Blues. And the Morgan Lee Wrecker of Engines first appeared in Cobalt City Rookies, written by Rosemary Jones. As for Madjack, she will make her debut in the Behind the Mask anthology from Meerkat Press this May.

As for the others, maybe some brief introductions are in order.

The Devil’s Daughter is the anti-social nomad cruising the back highways of the country on her custom chopper and fringed leather jacket. As a self-proclaimed “spawn of Satan,” she can conjure and control Hellfire, which she uses to dispense with her perceived enemies.

The Venetian is a vampire from mid 1600’s Venice. With his plague doctors mask, enchanted saber, and specialized hand-cannon, he’s made it his singular purpose to hunt the horrors that plague mankind. One of the so-called “Immortals” (along with Doctor Shadow, Tatterdemalion, and the Monkey King), he’s on the front lines of turning back the darkness.

Caterwaul is Felix Joseph, a young man from the Coeur d’Alene reservation who trained at the side of Gato Loco and Snowflake, preparing to take up the mantle of Gato Loco once Manuel de la Vega was ready to retire. He’s still new to the game, but with Manuel still acting as his mentor, he’s a worthwhile successor to the title.

GhostHouse is Mark Obiyashi, the half-Japanese, one-quarter ghost college student, saddled with his dead grandfather, Yoshi Obisashi as his constant companion. In addition to being ablet o communicate with restless spirits, he can harness ectoplasmic energy, making him an object of fear to the unprepared and a bit of a longer to those who know him. Seeking to make a difference with his life and abilities, he is eager to act as an agent for Wrecker of Engines.

Loyal friend to Mark Obiyashi, Lillian Mead was raised in the foster system after her Iranian-born journalist father was renditioned to a secret prison following 911 and her mother, the superhero named Nightmare became the government’s most wanted for trying to break him out. Lily’s heightened strength (and the superhuman strength of her shadow tentacles) and mood swings means she has a difficult time making friends. With nothing left to lose, she joins with Mark and Wrecker of Engines to help where she can.

Come check out my Patreon, where I’m promising a minimum of one story a month, plus ephemera. It’s cheaper than a comic book, and you can quit at any time, so what are you waiting for?

Scenes from a Misspent Youth

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Random Geekery
Tags:
Halloween, way too long ago

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted, and I probably owe an apology or maybe an explanation. Short answer: health, politics, and depression cornered me in an alley, beat me up, and took my lunch money. Crawling my way out now. Thanks for sticking around.

Now, on to the Feature Presentation.

Occasionally one of those bullshit nostalgia meme-factories craps out a “Share if you remember X” things on Facebook that doesn’t automatically make me want to kick the entire world in the soft bits. That happened earlier today, and it triggered something.

Not so much for the thing they were hoping, but tangentially. It triggered a wave of nostalgia, a bit of reflection, a bit of discussion, and, ultimately this unexpected blog post.

When I was a wee lad, in my “dressing up as a monster period,” let’s say, I developed something of a ritual. See, for most kids, Saturday morning television ended at 11, when the cartoons ground to an end. But for me, growing up in a rustic little tourist town in the southwest corner of Colorado, I learned to turn that dial to the magic of Denver’s Channel 2. An independent station, it provided alternative programming, meaning a lot of syndicated content, some original shows like the kid’s show Blinky’s Fun Club featuring Denver’s favorite clown (before John Elway, that is), and movies. Lots of movies. Let’s face it: they had a lot of hours to fill, even with being able to shut down broadcasts for the night around midnight or so. (Remember those days? If so, remember to take your meds before heading out for the Early Bird dinner at Denny’s!)

So at 11 on Saturday morning, they would broadcast the Wild Wild West, the weird western spy show that was, at that time, maybe a decade old. Then, assuming I wasn’t exiled to the “Outside” by a mother concerned about my Vitamin D, I would settle in for their Matinee Double Feature. And that, my friends, was my bread and butter.

They liked to mix it up a bit, but to my recollection, there was always one comedy followed by one more action-oriented film. These were often sci-fi or westerns, and while I could always roll with the sci-fi, the westerns were hit or miss. But it was a good mix. A little light, a little more dark.

Now, since this was an independent network with not inexhaustible funds, they weren’t exactly springing for top run movies. But in the days before AMC, shit, before cable, really, there was a vast catalog of old films shown on the limited number of television stations at any given time. And it was that or go play with sticks in the dirt or something. I mean, why do that when you can immerse yourself in classic Hollywood?

By the time I hit age 12, I’d seen Abbot and Costello Go to Mars three times. Made in 1953, sixteen years before I was born, it’s still my favorite film of theirs. I like to think I was the only kid in 6th grade who had seen (of his own free will) and enjoyed such classics as Bell Book and Candle (1958), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Mouse that Roared (1959), Inspector General (1949), Bells are Ringing (1960), The Caddy (1953), Cinderfella (1960), Operation Petticoat (1959), The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966), Balls of Fire (1941) and it’s musical remake with Danny Kaye, A Song is Born (1948). There are so many more I can’t even name.

And that’s just the comedies.

I know, as a geek, it’s not uncommon for my people to dig through the old genre classics and watch them. So while I had a healthy appreciation for all things Ray Harryhausen (Valley of Gwangi from 1969 being my favorite), and Day of the Triffids, and Twenty Million Miles to Earth, and others, I guess I don’t find it too unusual that I’ve seen them. Sci-fi geeks seek that shit out. It’s what we do. Same with horror and western geeks. The fact that I saw so many of them at an early age might be a bit strange, but it feels almost secondary.

But the comedies? I didn’t think that was too strange until late in my life when I realized good friends of mine had never seen a Danny Kaye movie. The thought was bizarre to me. I mean, I had his obituary tacked up to my cork board when he died. In fact, I venture that I still have it, tucked away in a box somewhere. That’s the kind of impact he made on me. That’s the kind of impact those movies had on me.

See, when I say I love film, I say it having consumed a crazy amount of film, pretty much indiscriminately from an early age. I love the medium. I love the spectacle. The magic. Because that’s what it is. Magic, conducted one frozen frame at a time, replayed so fast your brain thinks you’re seeing motion.

It’s shaped who I am in ways I’m still figuring out now.

Honestly, I sometimes to wonder why my parents let me spend that 5 hour block in front of the TV on Saturdays as frequently as I did. For my mom’s part, I think she might have just been asleep at the switch, glad I was out of her hair. But for my dad, who, when I was 5 or so, introduced me Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and the Little Rascals, I think he saw it as me embracing something that he once loved. I honestly don’t know.

I can’t help but think about how much we’ve lost. Not just in terms of those films being lost to time in some cases. Sweet Jesus, don’t get me started on lost films… But those movies were ubiquitous. Sure, you couldn’t really control what was being shown or when. You were at the mercy of the Channel 9. But you could kind of trust them to curate your experience. You could sit down at a specified time, in a specified place and receive the gospel of celluloid. And if I didn’t like the movie being shown, I could turn off the TV, go outside and play.

Which I did sometimes. Even I have limits.

But beyond those films being hard to find, the culture of a la carte movies has killed the ritual somewhat, too. The idea of looking back, of just wallowing in movies from a previous generation, it’s not something I see available to the kids growing up today.

I know, I know, I know. I’m dangerously close to “Get off my damn lawn!” and “Back in MY day!” I turn 50 in a few years, so I’m entitled to a bit of grumpy nostalgia. And it’s not even that I’m angry. At least some of the better of those movies have been preserved and are available for those with the inclination. And Gods bless AMC, especially when they’re showing the old stuff.

I like to think there’s an 8 year old right now on their Kindle Fire, watching Abbot and Costello Go to Mars right now, laughing at a couple of idiots in New Orleans at Mardi Gras thinking they’re on another planet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling the urge to try and track down some old Martin & Lewis movies for tonight.

See you at the movies!

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

I had a realization earlier today as I was plugging away on the next Cobalt City novel. (Yes, the novel is going well. No idea when it will be done, but I’m writing angry and will keep y’all updated here.) The new novel, tentatively titled RESISTANCE, is the closest thing I’ve ever written to what those in the comics industry call a Crossover Event.

Typically, what these signify is a massive storyline that draws many of the existing titles/characters into a larger-scale story. Some of them are great. Some suck out loud. But they seem to be inevitable as the big companies do them pretty much every year. It frequently signals series being canceled, rebooted, mixed around, or just started fresh. And with RESISTANCE, I’m bringing together characters I’ve worked with for years and characters I’ve developed but not actually written about as more than a mention if even that. And when it’s all done, things in Cobalt City will have changed. The status not so quo anymore if you’re feelin’ me.

So, if you’ll indulge me, this could be a peak of what Cobalt City would look like in the wake of a massive crossover event. And what new series would replace cancelled series.

Parlor Tricks

Largely despised occultist Louis Malenfant and the sorcerer Emil al-Aswan find themselves thrust into supernatural misadventure when Malenfant starts fighting back against the control of his patron, the King in Yellow. Hi-jinks ensue.

The Hunt

The Huntsman, Marcus Castile, goes underground with the Libertine to train his young niece and nephew to be the next Huntsmen while fighting back against a rising wave of Fascism within our own borders.

New Icons

The young Wrecker of Engines re-imagines the super-team, recruiting other solo operatives into a group of dedicated heroes with global reach. Fan favorites Gallows and Kensei are joined by new heroes GhostHouse, Kraken, and Caterwaul.

Bantam

Ties that Bind‘s conflicted hero and police detective walks a tough path between her various allegiances and a city descending into chaos. And as the person who sees where things break down, she’s going to have her work cut out for her holding it all together.

Kensei (by Jeremy Zimmerman)

Continuing the adventures of the spirit guardian of Karlsburg, it’s time to find a balance between the big leagues and some kind of a normal life. Expect a monthly dose of  action, fun, and roller-derby. (And seriously, if you haven’t checked out Zimmerman’s Cobalt City Kensei books yet, do it. They’re incredible.)

Starfall

It begins here: the DESCENT OF STARDUST! Follow Cobalt’s glowing guardian as he falls from grace and works to claw his way back to redemption, featuring Goblin Record’s Ruby Killingsworth.

The Big Tour

Kara Sparx and Lumien join Madjack Atlas McVittie on her world tour. With interstellar operatives dogging their heels at every stop, the’re going to have their work cut out for them.

Cobalt City Silver

An anthology series set in Cobalt City in the 1970’s featuring a rotating cast of creators and characters. The first few arcs will feature Devil’s Daughter, Midnight Thunder, and Tatterdemalion.

Anyway.

That’s if this was a comic book company and I had a stable of writers and artists. As is, we’ll see what rolls out fiction-wise when it rolls out. In the meantime, check out Cobalt City Christmas: Christmas Harder for a recent check in with the heroes of the city. And hopefully next year RESISTANCE will be out sometime late next year.

Shifting Gears & Sharpening Swords

Posted: November 19, 2016 in Novels
Tags:
Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

In September, I was working on my punk rock fable A Winter Lullaby and taking my time with it because I want to do this one right. It’s the novel I’m taking seriously in the same way I pursued Ink Calls to Ink. But I set it aside to knock out a quick Cobalt City novel in November for NaNoWriMo because it’s something I like to do. And make no mistake, I was EXCITED for this year’s Cobalt City book. It was a political thriller, and it was full of intrigue and ultimately, hope.

And then the election happened and I felt my knees metaphorically taken out from under me. I spent the first day careening between states of shock, abject depression, and incoherent anger. It was not the best creative head space. In the week that followed, I wrote, at best 200 words. It didn’t feel important anymore. Not necessarily that it was a waste of time, because creating art is never a waste of time.

I was angry. That was the new normal, the new default that I came to settle in. Stubbornly, righteously angry. Those who have known me through my long live might share stories about my stubbornness and long-standing problems with authority. Honestly, if the past week is any indication, they haven’t seen anything yet.

But I needed to write. It’s how I exorcise demons. It’s how I process terror and rage. Writing is my sword, and in times of strife, we use the swords we know. But nothing I was currently working on fit what I needed. And time was ticking because I had a writing retreat this weekend. I couldn’t spend those days sequestered with my peers just spinning my wheels. It would make me crazy.

So I started knocking things around, and in that process I came across an old notebook heretofore known as the “International Fraternal Corps of Bears in Ill-Fitting Hats” notebook. In it, I found a breakdown of the heroes of the Protectorate and what their status was in the post-Protectorate era. I remembered that Cobalt City had a conservative talk show host named Lyle Prather who was more than he appeared–a hate-spewing demagogue if ever there was one.

And I recalled this dream project I wanted to do with some of the other Cobalt City authors, a big invasion story where there were several independent stories featuring groups of heroes fighting on different fronts of a big, intergalactic invasion. Each author was going to take a group and tell that group’s story and I’d link them all together into a larger narrative. Like one of those stupid comic book crossover events, but as a novel. Crazy and ambitious, and since everyone has such full writing schedules, impossible to coordinate.

But I have time. I have the fire. And goddamn but my sword is feeling particularly sharp right now.

I outlined the project and started writing yesterday. Seven story arcs that intertwine into four story arcs by the end of the novel, maybe eight or so little vignette chapters interspersed throughout the overall structure. All about a deep, interconnected community of superheroes (and villains and sorcerers and anti-heroes) in a world where an unqualified and narcissistic demagogue becomes president.

A quick preview of planned arcs:

  • Archon and Gallows go to D. C. where Archon is being tempted with a consulting job that threatens to derail their once sound partnership.
  • Kara Sparks and Lumien are on tour with the Madjack, facing the mood in the heartland and barreling towards a show that could spark a revolution.
  • Louis Malenfant and Emil al Aswan seek to dethrone Prather from the City Behind the Moon only to find out the new president is more than he appears.
  • The young hacker Wrecker of Engines coordinates Gato Loco and his team facing down a Nazi bike gang outside of Las Vegas with young heroes Ghost House and Kraken who are trying to rescue Kraken’s father from an internment camp in Arizona.
  • Pressured to remain neutral, Stardust and Huntsman find themselves at odds with Libertine in Cobalt City as prolonged protests threaten to bring an authoritarian crackdown on the city.

The currently titled Cobalt City: Resistance is going to be the most ambitious story I’ve told in the city since Cobalt City Blues. I’ve jokingly referred to it as a stand-alone Game of Thrones with capes. And for all I know, it could be a horrible failure. I might stumble and fail and never finish it.

But I can’t abide what is happening in our country, the rise of comfortable fascism that I’m seeing normalized in the press. I can’t accept it. I won’t. And neither will the heroes of Cobalt City (though some will find themselves disturbingly relaxed about it).

And at the end of the day, we fight with the swords we know.