Sunday, December 4, 2016

2016 Advent Calendar --- day 4

If you're curious what this "Advent Calendar" is all about, check out the preamble here.

Dave Wachter is a comic artist who's worked with Steve Niles on "Breath of Bones," written and drawn a Godzilla story, and most recently had his art featured in the latest iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  His linework is beautiful, and on his site, when not drawing comic books, he's been sharing a series of Progressive Inspiration portraits.  You need to check them out.  Here's his site: 

And here are some examples of the portraits.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2016 Advent Calendar --- day 3

The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by many Native American tribes and groups, including the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, and their allies, and the harsh response from authorities is one of the saddest things to happen this year.  But hearing of a group of U.S. military veterans converging on the protest site, to show solidarity with, and help protect, those water protectors, as the protesters prefer to be described, just filled me with hope.  So, I'll share that story with you, here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

2016 Advent Calendar --- day 2

Anyone who has read this blog knows I'm a huge fan of comic books.  As part of this Advent Calendar, and inspired by the In the Mouth of Dorkness podcast, I want to share 5 (A Fistful Of...) comic book covers that are either iconic, in general, or special to me, personally.  So, here's the first collection.  Enjoy.

Charles Vess doing "black costume" Spider-Man...come on.

This cover, by Mike Zeck, is so iconic.  Got me to pick up this issue and I stayed with the book for a few years.  

My favorite superhero artist, George Pérez, drawing my favorite superhero, in what many would define as the Flash's finest moment.  This was the book---when I read the description of its contents in the Mile High catalog [Flash dies?!?]---that introduced me to Pérez.  I never looked back.  

The first comic book I remember, specifically, buying because of the cover art.  John Byrne was "The Man" in the 80s, my golden age of comics, and this was the book that reintroduced the Flash.  I had no idea who Darkseid was, but this image was so compelling, I had to find out what was going on.

Bill Sienkiewicz.  'Nuff said.

2016 Advent Calendar --- day 1

Riding to work yesterday, I heard a story on PRI's The World that more people commute into Copenhagen, Denmark on bicycles than by car.  This shift was facilitated by an infrastructure plan that hopes to get more than half of all downtown trips in Copenhagen to be by bicycle by 2025 (man, the alliteration in that last phrase...Stan Lee would have been proud).  With the threat of climate change, this is certainly a ray of hope, a major city showing the way forward to something better.  You can read or listen to the story in the link below:


2016 Advent Calendar --- preamble

The Holiday season--for me, it's Christmas (secular, in the main), but I feel a kinship with those who celebrate Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or whatever their personal beliefs may be--is my favorite time of year, but with the recent election, I've been feeling more anxious and irritated than I'd like.  Couple that with the general truth that so much of what qualifies as news is not good news and it just feels like a wet blanket of malaise (rather than mayonnaise, which would be equally gross and disappointing) is trying to wrap itself around me.  Sounds like a good R.L. Stine book.


In the spirit of the season, I decided to post one thing uplifting/positive/humorous/comforting/insert-your-descriptor-of-choice-here every day leading up to Christmas Day.  An Advent Calendar, of sorts (thus, the title for this and subsequent posts).  Initially, I planned on just posting these on Facebook or Twitter, but those feeds get so bogged down so quickly, by myself as much as others, that I've made the decision to shift it over to the blog, here.

I want to cull many of these "gifts" from news stories I hear on my commute or see online but will also be including other items that bring a smile to my face -- images, reminiscences, personal anecdotes, maybe some youtube videos of favorite holiday songs.  I hope you (yes, all three of you) enjoy this series.  At the very least, it should inject some positivity into the season for me.

So, with that preamble out of the way, let's get started...

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Fistful of Alan Moore’s lesser-known works

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, along with fellow dorks, Darren, Lisa, and Bryan, choose to walk a different path, and amended that to “A Fistful…” with their blog and podcast, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  Topics range from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I have regularly pilfered for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

Alan Moore is lauded as the greatest writer ever to work in the comic book medium.  Known for his use of literary techniques, such as foreshadowing and symbolism, meticulous plotting, and a facility of language rarely matched by other writers, regardless of medium, Moore is best-known as the author—in collaboration with a host of phenomenal artistic talents—of such books as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Saga of the Swamp Thing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Halo Jones, Tom Strong, Promethea, Lost Girls, and From Hell.  But he’s also crafted many stories that have not received as much attention as these hallmarks.  Here, for your consideration, are a fistful of lesser-known Alan Moore comics that you may wish to check out, in no particular order.  Because, generally speaking, if Moore is involved, they’re going to be good, and most likely will end up being great…but I may be biased.

SECRET ORIGINS #10 [DC Comics, 1986]
“Footsteps,” a Phantom Stranger Origin, with artist Joe Orlando

In “Footsteps,” Moore, along with artist Joe Orlando, share one of four origin stories of the Phantom Stranger.  In 10 pages, Moore and Orlando relate the story of an angel who was called to join the rebellion of Lucifer.  But this unnamed angel found it difficult to decide upon which side he should ally himself, uncertain of the righteousness of Lucifer, while also wavering as to the great Yahweh’s leadership.  But deep down, it is his fear of choosing wrongly that drives this angel.  And, in the end, he fails to choose either side, leading to exile from both the worlds of Heaven and of Hell.  Owing to this, he must walk alone, traveling the Earth, doing what he can to right wrongs and succor the oppressed—a Phantom Stranger, there for those in need. 
Moore & Orlando interweave this narrative with a complementary tale of a present-day gang member being courted by one among their ranks who wishes to overthrow their leader.  In the end, this young man (or, boy, really) fails to choose sides.  When he tries to find allies with the rebels—who were handily thrown out of the gang by the leader and his loyalists—he is greeted with scorn, subjected to pain.  Thankfully, the Phantom Stranger is there, at the end, offering his hand, as well as his very personal understanding for what this young man now faces. 

HATE! #30 [Fantagraphics Books, 1998]
“The Hasty Smear of my Smile,” featuring Kool-Aid Man, with artist Peter Bagge

Moore, along with Peter Bagge, tell the life story of the Kool-Aid Man, who was just a little different than the rest of his family.  Thank goodness his father finally drew a face on his glass-jar head, otherwise who knows what might have been. 
Over the course of just 4 pages, Moore & Bagge reveal how being misunderstood by his family leads to the Kool-Aid Man’s life as a struggling writer and his experiments with the counter-culture scene, where he met the likes of Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson.  His off-color activities lead to a breach of contract suit put forth by the soft drink company employing him, which only makes things worse for the Kool-Aid Man. 
Bagge’s overly cartoonish style works perfectly for this satire.  His characters all look as if they walked out of a distorted funhouse mirror, and within this milieu—which is all Bagge—Kool-Aid Man fits in perfectly.  It’s a tragicomedy, full of the trademark wit and sly humor expected from the likes of Moore and Bagge, which feels like a far longer tale than the four pages given over to it.  Another surprising treat for any Moore aficionados. 

ANYTHINGS GOES! #2 [Fantagraphics Books, 1986]
“In Pictopia,” with artist Don Simpson

When Fantagraphics was in the middle of a costly litigation, in the mid-1980s, they produced a benefit comic book, titled Anything Goes!, which they sold to offset legal costs.  A who’s who of comic talent contributed to this series, and in issue #2, Moore teamed with Don Simpson for “In Pictopia.”  Originally an 8-page script, Simpson expanded it to 13 pages and it’s one of the best things Moore has ever collaborated on. 
Through this baker’s dozen of pages we follow Nocturno the Necromancer as he makes his way through the city of Pictopia, home to all the comic characters (both comic book and comic strip characters) you’ve ever known (even if they go unnamed, due to copyright).  We see the slums, where “funny animals” live and allow people to beat them for fun (since they regenerate afterwards), in order to make money.  In the bars are the superheroic types, including characters like the Phantom and Popeye.  And an analogue of Dagwood’s bride, Blondie, is seen, very early, taking an old sailor up to her apartment, forced to prostitute herself out for money, now that the popularity of her classic comic strip is no longer in vogue.  In the end, Nocturno’s old friend, Flexible Flynn (a Plastic Man analogue), is rejuvenated (or rebooted) into a muscular, testosterone-laden caricature of the character he once was, sending Nocturno into the streets, in search of some kind of solace, only to find that the funny animal slums have been bulldozed. 
This short story benefits, tremendously, from Simpson’s art.  Known mainly—or, mainly to me, at least—as a comedy cartoonist, from his work on Megaton Man.  “In Pictopia” reveals his versatility.  Adept in multiple styles, Simpson not only delineates the funny animals in a manner reminiscent of those classic comic strips, particularly Disney comics, but he also masterfully creates superheroes in the mode of Marvel and DC Comics of the 1980s, with muscle-laden supermen and lithe, curvaceous superwomen.  His ability to skillfully work within these varied styles is what sells this story, and makes it as lasting and important a comic as it is. 
For Moore’s part—this is as smartly written a critique of the comic medium as you will find, and it’s all told through the very same medium it critiques.  As with any Moore-penned tale, the dialogue and descriptions roll smoothly across your tongue, while both entertaining and enlightening readers—in this instance, providing a visual metaphor of how the “grim & gritty” approach, fostered by simplistic, surface readings of the comic work of Moore (particularly Watchmen) and Frank Miller, led to a more violent and more “relevant” storytelling approach in comics, which lacked the characterization and depth of narrative these two creators and their collaborators were aspiring to.  Certainly, one might see some of the metaphor as lacking in nuance, but maybe that was what was called for, because nobody (or very few) artists and writers seemed to get the message. 

“Shadowplay: The Secret Team” in Brought to Light, with artist Bill Sienkiewicz
[Eclipse Books, 1989]

Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz—two legends of the comic book industry.  With Shadowplay, Moore & Sienkiewicz relate the thirty year war the CIA has perpetrated upon the United States Constitution, through its machinations across the globe.  Utilizing a lawsuit brought by the Christic Institute, along with other primary sources, these two artists distill into 32 pages the drug smuggling, assassinations, coups, double dealings, and myriad other illegal activities the CIA have condoned and enacted, from the 1950s to then-present 1988, in order to steer international sociopolitical actions, while expanding their power across the globe.  It is a terrifying and overwhelming narrative, one that feels ripped from a bad spy thriller.  And yet, for all that, it also feels far too real. 
Moore & Sienkiewicz choose to tell their narrative through the eyes of America (the real America, the strong America, not the whiny, liberal, Commie-loving pansies who would constrict our nation’s influence abroad), in the embodiment of a bald eagle who enjoys Cuban cigars, hard liquor, and loose women.  The narrative is told as if you, the reader, just stumbled into a bar and found the Eagle already going on to the barman, as he enjoys his whiskey.  Seeing you, the Eagle starts to spill his guts, going on about all the CIA has done to achieve its foothold on the international scene, much of it done behind a curtain of secrecy.  We learn of people such as Oliver North and Richard Secord, and of the CIA involvement in the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra affair.  It’s chilling, thanks in no small part to the subject matter, a feeling that is heightened by the artistry of Sienkiewicz, whose mastery of staging, cartooning, and symbolism wonderfully complement Moore’s writing. 
This is a must-read, especially now.   And, if you prefer something less visual and can find it, Moore produced a spoken word CD, with musician Gary Lloyd, of this same story, and his thick, melancholic voice only accentuates the horror revealed within this narrative. 

A Small Killing, with artist Oscar Zarate
[VG Graphics, 1991; reprinted by Avatar Press, 1993]

It’s 1989, and Timothy Hole (pronounced “holly”) is on the cusp of a career-changing, and possibly career-defining, enterprise.  He is to create the advertising campaign for Flite, an American soda, as they introduce their product to a newly opened Russia.  But Hole is awash with anxiety, unsure of how to approach this new challenge, unsure if he really wants this assignment, unsure of how his life has brought him to this place, so far away from what his aspirations once were.  And, even as his mind races with questions, Hole spies a young boy in the crowded streets of New York City who unnerves him. 
The next morning Hole embarks on a jet for England, a layover to visit his parents before continuing to Russia.  He spends a short time in London before moving on to Sheffield, where his parents live, which leads him to visiting the “Old Buildings” where he grew up.  All the while, the strange boy follows Hole, flitting among crowds and down alleys while the older man pursues him—a futile enterprise.  As Hole moves backward through his life—through the places he’s lived—he revisits, in his mind, the most important aspects of his life in those places:  his marriage, the subsequent divorce, a contentious break-up with the woman who followed, and a childhood memory of burying insects alive, the guilt of that act having trailed him ever since.  In the end, Hole is forced to come to grips with the life he has lived, how far short he fell of his youthful ideals, and how culpable he is for all the failings and faults that have overshadowed this life.  In the end, Hole must make a decision, come to grips with his life, and find a way to move forward. 
Zarate’s artwork in this book is just beautiful.  He has a loose style that borders on caricature without falling too heavily into that mode, with a sense of color and shading that highlights pertinent aspects of a panel while imbuing the whole narrative with a lushness found in too few comics.  The coloring seems to be achieved through watercolors, allowing for a wider range of hues.  I’m unsure if it’s actually paint on the boards or a different technique, but the results are masterful.  Most of all, though, I love how distinct Zarate’s art style is.  It could not be mistaken for anyone else’s, and that makes all the difference in this, one of Moore’s most literary collaborations. 


There are plenty more lesser-known works from the Wizard of Northampton, including stories about Batman’s rogue, Clayface, DC characters Vigilante and Omega Men, Marvel’s Captain Britain, Image titles WildC.A.T.S and Spawn, as well as work with Dame Darcy and his collaboration with Ian Gibson, Halo Jones.  Any of these would sit well on this list.  What ones would you include?


Monday, November 21, 2016

A Fistful of Happy Places

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, along with fellow dorks, Darren, Lisa, and Bryan, choose to walk a different path, and amended that to “A Fistful…” with their blog and podcast, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  Topics range from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I have regularly pilfered for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

In the Dorks’ most recent episode—checkit, here—they counted down their top 5 “Happy Places,” and it was a great episode.  Of course, it got me to thinking, what are my favorite happy places, in film or television?  Define it as you will.  In my list, I have things that make me laugh, things that have a comforting atmosphere, and things that take me back to my childhood and that inner happy place we all harbor.  Here’s what I came up with. 

5.  The Flying Circus

I’m not one for comedies, and not one who laughs much.  I enjoy things, even funny things, but (as I say more than is necessary) I have a fairly narrow emotional spectrum—I rarely get too high and rarely get too low.  I prefer drama and action to overt comedy (sure, sprinkle some funny moments into those dramas, it’s vital to highlighting the really tragic things that can happen in a good film or television series). 
But, when I need a good laugh, there are some places that can guarantee me that, even if I’m feeling down.  Monty Python is one of those shows.  Ever since I discovered it on MTV, while in high school, and right up through today, the absurdity and incisive humor never fails to elicit rolling laughter from me.  John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Graham Chapman are perfect, if you’re looking for some riotous laughs.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what we (and I) need.

4. Dillon, Texas

I have yet to see the film, but the TV series, Friday Night Lights, is one of the best shows I have watched in recent years.  The acting, the writing, the drama overlaid onto these high school football players and the collection of classmates and family members that surround them was phenomenal (putting aside a bit of that second season).  But, one of the best aspects of this series was the characterization of Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami.  If you were a player in trouble, you could go to Coach.  If you were a student having troubles in school, you could go to Tami, the guidance counselor.  And if you were a young man or woman in need of help outside these professional settings, the Taylors were the family you could, and would, go to if you needed help.  The Taylors—most epitomized in their relationship as husband and wife—were two of the most genuine and complex characters on network TV.  And the idea of being able to go to their house and hang out is a comforting idea, indeed. 

3. That bar where everyone knows your name

In high school and through college, Cheers was my favorite TV show.  We were so lucky in our junior year at the University of Maine, we could watch it five times on Thursdays, thanks to new episodes airing and the reruns on our local NBC affiliate out of Bangor and the Boston channel, from our cable package, which ran episodes in the early evening as well as after the nightly news.  It was a smorgasbord of hilarity, with Carla, Coach, Woody, Diane, Sam, Norm, Cliff, and the rest of the gang.  It’s on Netflix currently, and I’ve been dipping in and out when the mood hits.  It’s a show that always makes me feel good. 

2. Hobbiton

I read The Hobbit in second grade (went on to read it more than a dozen times since).  I read The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven or twelve (and read that a half dozen more times).  J.R.R. Tolkien was my favorite author, and Rings my favorite book, for many years, and Tolkien, along with his literary works, still holds a special place on my metaphorical bookshelf.  When Peter Jackson finally brought the land of Middle Earth to the big screen, I was overjoyed.  He got it so right (in the Rings trilogy, at least), and the opening of that first film, in Hobbiton, was amazing and beautiful.  Ever since that first time I read The Hobbit, I’ve wanted to live in a hole in the ground, with a round, green door and a brass knocker, just like Bilbo Baggins.  And after watching Jackson’s initial trilogy, that feeling became more entrenched in my psyche.  Hobbiton would be a lovely place to live. 

1.  Tatooine

Since I was five and first saw it in the theater, Star Wars has been a constant in my life.  First with the original trilogy, then the toys and comics, followed by magazines and novels, and even more comics, and more films (most of those ones weren’t good).  Star Wars overwhelmed and enamored the five-year-old me, and its hold hasn’t let up much in the intervening four decades.  Empire may be the “best” film of the series, but Star Wars (NOT episode IV, NOT Star Wars, colon, subheading “A New Hope”) was the first movie, the one that started it all, and it is THE movie of the trilogy that epitomizes everything I love about this series. 
And Tatooine embodies that happy place for me. 
I love the scenes with the Jawas, the first scenes with Luke—him gazing off at the twin sunset…so good—and the attack of the Sand People, leading to the introduction of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and, finally, the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Mos Eisley spaceport.  Watching Star Wars always takes me back to my childhood, like a shot, and to my time with good friends—Donnie and Tommy, Sean and Jason, and so many others—watching and playing and debating Star Wars and that galaxy far, far away.  Nothing hits my nostalgia button as hard as Star Wars does.  And there is no happier place in the galaxy for me than Tatooine. 


Friday, November 11, 2016

A Fistful of War Comics (for Veterans’ Day)

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choose to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, in no particular order, here are five of the best war comics from my collection. 

5. Blazing Combat

Reprinting the legendary four issues of Blazing Combat, this Fantagraphics collection includes all the stories written by Archie Goodwin, with artwork from Wally Wood, John Severin, Frank Frazetta, Gene Colan, and Alex Toth.  In the vein of EC, published by Warren, these stories from the mid-1960s showed the horrors of war, in a manner not seen in comics, or in much of popular culture.  They are rightfully considered some of the best comics ever produced. 

4. Enemy Ace: War Idyll, written & painted by George Pratt

In 1990, George Pratt brought back the classic DC comics character, the Enemy Ace, but as a dying man in 1969.  Interviewed by a reporter, who turns out to have been a tunnel rat in Vietnam.  In the sharing of their stories, they discover an unexpected connection that will lead to a truth both have been avoiding for a long time.  With lush painted artwork from Pratt, this is a beautiful, as well as a touching, story. 

3. Unknown Soldier by James Owsley (Christopher Priest) & Phil Gascoine

Eschewing previous continuity—while also being ignored by later writers—Owsley and Gascoine’s series tells the story of an actual immortal soldier who is far more cynical than the patriotic character created by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert.  With solid art from Gascoine and a gripping story from Owsley (known today by the name Christopher Priest), this is a classic war comic that rarely gets mentioned.  But it should be. 

2. Jack Kirby’s The Losers

Kirby created, defined, and redefined more comic book characters and genres than any other artist or writer in the field, and his Losers, written & drawn by “the King,” is possibly his best writing effort, including Kamandi and his Fourth World saga. These comics are full-on Kirby, with his dynamic artistry and storytelling on display, but when I first read these, it was the words that jumped out at me.  Missing are the stilted dialogue and the overreaching hyperbole found in so much of his work.  Not to denigrate Kirby’s other writing efforts, which have a charm and excitement, but the reading of these dozen war stories was so smooth and easy that it stood out.  Kirby was a WWII veteran, and he infused this comic with those experiences, and maybe the reality of those coupled with the weightiness of the subject matter inspired Kirby’s writing in these.  It’s definitely one of his finest runs on a series. 

1. Vietnam Journal by Don Lomax

This is one of my all-time favorite comic series.  The combination of Lomax’s loose, moody artwork with stories culled form his experiences in Vietnam resulted in something special.  Touching, unvarnished, heart wrenching, and mysterious, these comics, especially the first 16 issues, are incredibly gripping.  I cannot recommend this series highly enough.  Check here for more on this amazing comic. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

All Hallow's Read - a short horror story for your enjoyment

It's All Hallow's Read (aka Halloween...with scary books).  So here's a piece of flash fiction I had published in issue #2 of Firewords Quarterly, a literary magazine out of the United Kingdom.  

Enjoy, and a have a spooky Halloween.

By C. M. Beckett

I need to get outta here.  Winter ain’t even here an’ it’s already too effin’ cold even with the friggin’ global warming.

Sorry, but I won’t curse in front of my Ma, don’t matter how old I get.  A mom takes care o’ you, provides for ya, keeps food on your plate.  You gotta appreciate that and show some respect. 

Of course, things changed with the Little Big One.  We could feel it all the way over here.  Some folks didn’t believe me.  Little tremors, like a shiver runnin’ through your boots.  And then when it hit the news sites.  Nobody knew what to do.  Sittin’ at home watchin’ crazies freakin’ out, killin’ their neighbors, drownin’ their kids.  What the heck?! 

We did what we do best up here – hunker down and cut ourselves off from everything else.  It wasn’t too hard, livin’ on a farm an’ all.  Generations before us had done all right with it, and with the government goin’ ta hell (sorry, Mom) it seemed the best thing to do.  Most people never knew what to make of us up here anyway – ninety percent woods and nothin’ much ta do ‘cept drink and terrorize. 

At first, things were good.  We didn’t need for much, just had ta be smart, use what we found and not waste nothin’.  Things’d be back to normal soon enough and then we’d get back to headin’ down to the mall and such. 

That was a pipe dream.

Goin’ on twenty years now since it all went to crap, and still no end in sight.  Most o’ the woods is gone now.  At least around here.  When the oil prices spiked durin’ the War, poachers swept in like huge vultures, layin’ waste to practically the whole state.  Now we got no resources ta speak of.  No forests.  No topsoil.  No birds, no animals.  Nothin’ worth a damn.  Not here anyway.

So I need to move.  No way to survive another winter here.

Tonight’s my last night.  I managed to gather a few saplings for one last meal before I hit the road.  They’re still raw an’ smoke more than burn, so I didn’t even bother with a pan, just threw it on the fire.  I like the skin blackened anyway, gives it more flavor.

Should be done soon.  It was hard the first time, with Gramps.  Everybody squeamish, not wantin’ to partake an’ all.  My sister – she was always a bitch (sorry, Ma) – got up and walked outside.  Wouldn’t eat nothin’ and upset my Ma no end. 

It’s how Gramps woulda wanted it.  He’d lived a good life and died o’ natural causes.  He would'na wanted us to waste away too just because o’ some old-school civilities.  The rules had changed and we did what we had to do to live.

My sister was next o’ course, but that wasn’t for quite a few months.  I dug right in that night.  She’d fallen and hurt herself somethin’ fierce.  Not much we could do.  No doctors left, and little in the way o’ supplies.  We did what we could.  Made her comfortable.  Said some words over her from the Good Book.  But it wasn’t long before she was gone too. 

That was last winter, which was pretty tough on all of us.  Not many made it to summer.  We all knew what was comin’ but didn’t talk much about it.  How could we?  We had to look each other in the eye every day. 

Now I’m it.  The last one.  I put that off as long as I could.  It was too hard.  I mean, she’s my Ma.  She brought me into this shitfuck (sorry, Ma) world.  But in the end, she understood which one of us had a better chance o’ makin’ it. 

And she knew that a mom takes care o’ ya, provides for ya, keeps food on your plate.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Vietnam Journal by Don Lomax, an important comic

Some of my earliest published writing were reviews of small press comics, for Independent Propaganda and then the Pulse.  During that time, I also submitted work to a fledgling, and now-defunct, site: graphicnovelreview(dot)com.  The main stipulation for their reviews were that they not go over 500 words.  It was a fun challenge, trying to get everything I wanted to say on the page while being economical with my words, and I was happy with the submission I crafted for Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal.  I never did hear back from them.  No big deal.  But, I did come across that piece in an old file folder a few days back and thought I would share--not just because I, generally, like what I wrote, but because Vietnam Journal is a great comic (#7 in my personal Top Ten all time comics--storylines edition).  Hope you enjoy.  And if you're looking for a great war comic, seek this book out, it's collected and available through Amazon.

Back in the World: a review of the graphic novel Vietnam Journal,
created by Don Lomax, published by Transfuzion publishing.
By C. M. Beckett

Written and illustrated by Don Lomax, Vietnam Journal is a brutally honest look at what it was like incountry during the Vietnam conflict.  Wishing to “ . . . counter the sophomoric, one-man-war approach to Vietnam” typified by the Rambo movies, Lomax opts in favor of diverse characters dealing with the horror of their reality.  In a genre that falls so easily into cliché – John Wayne, Sgt. Rock, et al. – Lomax sidesteps these deftly while telling stories focused on serious, and sometimes unsettling, issues. 
The first chapter, “The Field Jacket,” exemplifies this when Scott “Journal” Neithammer, a freelance news correspondent, relates the story of the tattered field jacket he wears to his new comrades.  He shares how one wearer avoided fatal injury from a homemade explosive while another’s mission was unexpectedly aborted.  In every instance, the owner believed his good fortune was a result of the jacket’s protective qualities.  When each of these soldiers left Vietnam – either due to a serious, or fatal, injury – the field jacket passed to another grunt until ultimately being laid at Journal’s feet.  With its supernatural pedigree, Journal sees it in the same light as its previous owners, a good luck charm.  In the end, however, the soldiers in Journal’s new company point out that the only luck that can be ascribed to the jacket is bad, since most who wore it became “believers.”  These soldiers, despite having just crossed from the threshold of boyhood, realize that bravado and superstition won’t help them survive.

Lomax’s art is not as polished as you might find in more mainstream comics, but there is a fluidity to his work reminiscent of Will Eisner of Stephen Bissette.  What Lomax’s art lacks in “beauty” is more than offset by his skilled use of the comic page’s unique strengths.  His backgrounds are fully realized, evoking the splendor and harshness of Vietnam, while splash pages are used sparingly, adding to their impact and allowing them to resonate long after one closes the book. 
Lomax is also one of a handful of creators able to use captions successfully.  Rather than reiterating what can be found in the pictures, he utilizes them to add to the narrative.  Lomax allows the images and words to mesh together in service to the story, elevating Vietnam Journal above the vast majority of graphic novels found on the shelves.

Like any good work of fiction, Vietnam Journal also educates its readers.  Not only does it inform its audience of those turbulent times – through the “Back in the World” feature, which includes excerpts from newspaper stories of the day – but the book also teaches readers about life.  With events continuing to spiral out of control in the Middle East, these stories are more relevant today than when initially produced twenty years ago.  Mr. Lomax presents an unfiltered view of what war is really like based on his own tour of duty in Vietnam.  These are important stories that should be shared so their lessons can be passed on to a new generation.

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Fistful of Costumes -- Fistful Friday

The latest ITMODcast episode is a Fistful Friday ep, looking at a fistful of great costumes.  As usual, they are discussing their topic within the context of film, and I do my best to hold to that but did manage to slip in a comic book reference, because it was the first thing that came to mind when I started listening to the podcast. 

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks .

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt & Darren & Lisa & Bryan choose to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog, trading places with Kermit, in Muppets Most Wanted

It’s simple.  It’s funny.  And I love the Muppets.  ‘Nuff said.

E.T. in his Charlie Brown ghost costume

I hate to do this, but you need to listen to the ITMODcast episode linked in the opening bit of this post, because I chose this one for all the reasons Lisa Gullickson (@sidewalksiren) said on the show.  Trust me.

Floronic Man from Alan Moore’s first issues of Swamp Thing


My only comic book entry.  Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing, in the early 1980s, was revolutionary, and his characterization of Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, was horrifying while also heartbreaking.  Throughout the initial Moore, Bissette, Totleben storyline, Woodrue had been spraying a compound he’d devised over his wooded & leaved exterior to make that offered the appearance of human skin to make him look human.  But, when his mind finally snaps under the pressure of not being human, along with everything else that has occurred with this “new” Swamp Thing, his inability to utilize the spray well enough to conceal his grotesque visage stands as a striking metaphor of his fractured psyche.  Brilliant stuff.

Yoda, as the foolish scamp, when Luke first meets him in Empire Strikes Back

If you were a kid, or an adult, who entered the movie theater in 1980 for Empire, it’s very possible you had no idea who Yoda was.  So, when we are introduced to this little green fella, on this swampy marsh of a planet, and he makes some vague comments about the Jedi Master, Yoda, while acting like a prankster, there is no indication that this imp will be revealed as the most powerful Jedi in the universe.  That introductory scene is fun, and when we get the reveal, shortly after, it’s amazing.  A great turn, in a great film. 

Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent

The joke has always been, how can Clark Kent disguise his alter-ego of Superman with just a pair of eyeglasses and slicked back hair?  With the first Superman film, as well as in subsequent entries (regardless of quality), Christopher Reeve showed us how that could be achieved.  His demeanor and his posture are starkly contrasted between his life as Clark and his life as Superman.  It really was an amazing bit of acting, on his part, and sold this dichotomy like it never had been sold before.  I love that first film, and much of the second one, and his performance in these films is why Christopher Reeve will always embody “my” Superman.

So, what are your favorite costumes?  Define it how you like, and let me know.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My Top 10 Comics [Storylines edition] -- # 1-5

So, I had a twitter discussion with Brad Gullickson (@MouthDork, co-host of the In the Mouth of Dorkness podcast: @ITMODcast) a few weeks back about “The Best Comics Ever” and how it’s always Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns at the top—kind of like Citizen Kane almost always topping the list of greatest films ever.  It’s hard to argue with not only the artistry and formalistic approach to both of these books but also the impact and influence these two books had, something that still hangs over the comic book landscape thirty years out.  It seems these two books, along with Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, are baked into the top 3 spots, all-time, for comic storytelling.  But do they need to be?  Might there be other works that have transcended the bounds of the field since then (or even prior to 1986)?  Possibly.  I think it would depend upon your criteria, since these lists are always subjective, in spite of any arguments to the contrary. 

Using this discussion as a jumping off point, I decided to come up with my personal top 10 comics.  Some of the guidelines I set for myself were to consider works other than those perennial top 3 (certainly, that introduced a bias against these books, but so be it; I doubt anyone’s going to forget about Watchmen & Dark Knight if I don’t list them here), to attempt not to repeat creators within these ten titles (otherwise, I could easily see Alan Moore flooding my list), and to weigh, heavily, how many times I have re-read these stories.  Also, for the most part, I worked to only include individual collections—whether an original graphic novel or a single storyline from a larger work—but you will notice I failed at that, in a couple of spots. 

You can check out the first post, covering numbers 6-10 +11, here.  The top 5 follow this rambling preamble.  And, hey, feel free to disagree with me and drop a note in the comments with your own top 10.  I’d be interested to see what others feel are the best of the best.  Thanks.

Pompeii, by Frank Santoro  

I was introduced to Santoro’s work at the 2007 MoCCA Festival in New York, with the initial four issues of the series he created with Ben Jones, Cold Heat.  (check out a spotlight & interview with Santoro, for that series, here).  A student of fine art as well as comics, Santoro utilizes a scaled back, contour line approach to his art that appears simple, on its surface, but is one that can more strongly engage an audience in the hands of a master, which, I feel, Santoro is.  As a writer/artist, he tends to craft quiet, emotional narratives that eschew over-rendering and over-writing, in order to get at the heart of the matter, and he does it magnificently.  Pompeii tells the story of an artist’s apprentice, Marcus, in this ancient city, during the couple of days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius.  Weaving threads of his master’s romantic entanglements with Marcus’s questioning of his own relationship, this book works on numerous levels and rewards subsequent readings.  Not only do we have the mirroring of the master’s and apprentice’s story, but Santoro similarly crafts pages to accentuate this theme of mirroring, with facing pages often subtly inverting one another, through their layout and subject.  It’s a merging of art and story that is distinct and rare, in comics.  If you’ve never read anything by Santoro, then check this book out.  It’s amazing.

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

Gaiman & McKean have crafted memorably elegant stories together, but Mr. Punch is, in my opinion, their most ambitious collaboration.  Weaving a story of childhood memories, lost in the fog of time, punctuated by the very British tale of Mr. Punch, these two artists created a book that is not only engaging and heartfelt, but also one that does not talk down to readers.  This is a book that does not tie every plot thread with a bow, and, in fact, revels in the murkiness of human memory, postulating various ideas of what “really happened,” as far as the main character’s recollection goes.  There are answers, buried deep within the narrative, but they may not be the right ones, and they probably aren’t the same ones your friend would take away from this book.  And that is worth your time, at the very least.  Plus, McKean is doing the art, so the pages are beautiful to look at while also adding to the mystery and emotion of the narrative.  This book is so damn good.   

MAUS, by Art Spiegelman  

This book is a masterpiece.  The only comic to win a Pulitzer, an accolade that is well deserved.  Spiegelman interweaves the tale of his relationship with his difficult father, with that of his father’s odyssey as a young Jewish man in Germany, at the time of Hitler, and his subsequent toils in concentration camps, where much of his family was murdered.  It is a poignant, heart-wrenching, complex story that is expertly delineated by Spiegelman, delving into uncomfortable, and tragically horrific, depths of his and his father’s life, in ways I expect most people would balk at.  This is an important story told without artifice, through a medium that—when done as well as Spiegelman does here—can engage its audience, while also enveloping them within the narrative as well as, or better, than almost any other.  I read this book every couple of years, and it never fails to cut me to the quick.  Brilliant.

Love & Rockets [all of it!], by Los Bros Hernandez

Fantagraphics started publishing this seminal comic, from brothers Xaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez, in 1982.  The brilliance of this comic is not only in the beautiful artwork of the Brothers Hernandez, but also in the intelligence of the writing.  Over the course of nearly 35 years, they have crafted long-running narratives that are as complex and fraught and ecstatic and real as any life, and they have done this for myriad characters.  From the magical-realist fantasies of Beto to the poignant Locas tales featuring Maggie & Hopey, Los Bros Hernandez have infused their comics with love and sadness, and all emotions between, along with elements from all genres of literature—with female wrestling, weird aliens, a man with devil’s horns on his head, ghosts (that are very real), super heroes, and most anything else you could imagine, making their way into these stories.  And yet, these aspects never pull you out of the story, and they never undermine the very real truths being revealed through these comics.  The characters found in Love and Rockets are some of the most real people you will ever meet.  And that gets to the heart of what has made this comic such an amazing piece of art—the fact that these artists have allowed their characters to age, and to grow, with relationships changing over time, to great dramatic and emotional effect.  It’s not just the brilliance of Los Bros Hernandez as storytellers that elevates Love and Rockets, but their ability to call back to earlier stories and wring the emotional weight from that with a contemporary narrative that puts the entire lives of characters, and the previous decades’ worth of comics, into a different light.  This may be the best long-form comic series, ever, and you need to read it all.  Now.

From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell  

Alan Moore, early in his career, said in an interview—and I paraphrase—that he didn’t wish to work with artists whom he felt were better writers than himself, because he wanted them to be creating their own new comics, and he was speaking of Eddie Campbell.  When these two finally decided to collaborate, they tackled the murders of Jack the Ripper, laying out a conspiracy that reached as high as Queen Victoria, while examining how these horrific murders echoed up through the twentieth century, all while Moore annotated every bit of it (except for one scene, forcing readers to go back and re-read the 500+ pages to find the clues for that piece of the puzzle).  A fictionalized recreation of these murders, and the man behind them, Moore & Campbell were the perfect team to bring this story to life.  From Moore’s formalism as a writer, and his use of theme, symbolism, and foreshadowing, among other literary techniques, to Campbell’s dark etchings, they manage to completely capture the feeling of this era, and the fear that surrounded these few months of 1888, in London, this is a master class in comic storytelling, while also breaking away from some outdated conventions of the medium (most notably, the opportunity for them to craft chapters as long as they wanted, and was needed, as with prose novels).  If you’ve only seen the film, you have no idea how powerful From Hell is.  Ever since I first read it, this one has been at the top of my list, and I don’t see it ever falling from its peak. 

So, what are your top 10 comic storylines?  Drop them in the comments section and let’s start arguing talking.  Thanks for reading, and take care.