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.
-chris


I GOTTA GET OUTTA HERE
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 or 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. 

NEEDLESS DISCLAIMER:
Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks http://www.inthemouthofdorkness.com/ .

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.

#5:
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.

#4:
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.

#3:
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.

#2:
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. 

#1: 
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.

-chris

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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


WHO WILL WIN?
 
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.

#5:
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.

#4:
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.   

#3:
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.

 #2:
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.

#1:
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.


-chris

Friday, October 7, 2016

My Top 10 Comics [Storylines edition] -- # 6-10



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 books 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. 

So, without further equivocation, here’s the initial fistful of greatest comic stories I have read, numbers 6-10, in reverse order.  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.

#10:
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story, by Dave Sim & Gerhard.  


Dave Sim is one of the greatest cartoonists ever to work in the comic book medium, and it could even be argued he is the greatest to put ink to Strathmore.  The emotional depth of his best writing, along with the wit and intelligence also on display there, coupled with his facility in body language and facial expressions and layout with his drawings, are second to none.  Add in the emotive quality of his lettering, and you have a five-tool player, as they say in baseball.  The fact that he did this, primarily, in telling the story of an anthropomorphized barbarian aardvark and managed to tell some of the truest, most engaging comics ever published in the medium, and you get a sense of his ability.  Jaka’s Story, for me, is the one I most engaged with, and the one that tugged at my heart the strongest.  Thus, it comes in at number ten.

#9:
Saga of the Swamp Thing, vol. 1, by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, et al.


Swamp Thing was the breakthrough book for Alan Moore, his first American comics work, back in 1984.  Paired with artists Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch, along with a number of others, these creators managed to pull Alec Holland from the murky depths of D-list character to critical and commercial success.  The brilliance of these stories is not just in the writing, wherein Alan Moore reimagined the Swamp Thing’s reality without discounting any of the character’s history, but in the conjunction of art and story.  In all interviews I’ve read from this creative team, it sounds like a true collaboration, where Bissette & Totleben & Veitch were integral figures in plotting, offering ideas and images that Moore would weave into his scripts, and I think the final product bears out the benefits of this strong partnership.  Moore’s thoughtful approach to storytelling and his purple prose, coupled with the eerily moody artwork of these artistic giants, created a horror comic that not only made you feel uncomfortable, but also made you think.  And, to this day, it still holds up extremely well.

#8:
Daredevil: Born Again, by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli


My favorite superhero story of all time, period.  Miller was at the height of his artistic powers, in 1986, when these comics were published, and he got to work with a master of the medium in Mazzucchelli, who, in my opinion, delineated the most beautiful, “traditional-style” superhero art, ever, with this storyline.  A comic book that used symbolic imagery, sharp dialogue, clean artwork, and an adult sensibility to tell a tale that is Shakespearean in its scope, this was my introduction to the character of Daredevil, and even though there’s a lot of backstory that infuses the narrative with its emotional weight, I never felt lost or disconnected from the story or the characters, and the book has only rewarded my time with every re-read since then. 

 #7:
Vietnam Journal #1-16, by Don Lomax


Vietnam Journal was the first black and white comic I collected, and it is the best war comic I’ve ever read.  Lomax was a Vietnam veteran himself, and he infused his stories with a truth, however harsh it may have been, that sets this book apart from all other war books.  Following Scott “Journal” Niethammer, a journalist who volunteered to cover the Vietnam War, we learn a lot about the war, about how the grunts on the ground felt about it, and about the horror that war is.  This, like so many great comics, is not a standout series because of just the writing or just the art, it is a combination of truthful writing and a black and white art style that is able to reveal the ugliness of the circumstances and settings of the comic.  It does not glorify violence, nor does it gorify it.  Lomax manages to (and this is the best word, so I’ll use it again) reveal the Vietnam War in a way that kicks you right in the gut.  It’s an amazing book, and one you should seek out, as these 16 issues, along with later stories, have all been collected.

#6:
The Barefoot Serpent, by Scott Morse


The brilliance of Barefoot Serpent is not only in its format—a quick biography of Akira Kurosawa, done in full-color paintings, bookending a tale of a girl and her family on vacation in Hawaii, which is done in sepia tones—but in its subtlety of execution.  There are things in this short book, whether connections between the Kurosawa parts and the short fiction or hidden elements within either of these pieces singly, that will fly past you, on an initial read.  But, once you make those connections in subsequent readings, the thematic cohesiveness of this book will become apparent and make you appreciate it far more.  Again, it is the writing and the art, and the combination of both, that elevates this book beyond so much else available for your enjoyment.  Morse’s animation style is deceiving, putting forth a façade of whimsy and lightness that is undermined by the gravity of the tale he is weaving (a hallmark of almost all of Morse’s work), and it is this juxtaposition of whimsical art and heavy topics that makes the story resonate more strongly with its audience, even after you close the book. 

SPECIAL MENTION (or #11):
Cages by Dave McKean



I feel like this should definitely be on this list, but the truth is I have only read Cages the one time, many years ago, and never returned to it, due to its length and complexity rather than any shortcoming of its narrative.  Since it has been years, and actually closing in on two decades, since I read Cages, and my recollection of the story is lost, I didn’t feel I could properly include it in my top 10.  That said, my one memory of reading McKean’s Cages, other than how beautiful it is, was the fact that it was incredibly well written, something I was not expecting.  I was, and am, a fan of Neil Gaiman—he’s one of my favorite authors—and the only work I’d read of McKean’s had been with Gaiman (or Grant Morrison), but I distinctly remember thinking that Cages was at least as good as Sandman, my second-favorite long form comic series of all time, and that impressed me.  So, having added it here, as an addendum, I feel it’s near time to revisit this book and see if it will crack my top 10.  I’ve got a feeling it will, and I’ll let you know if that happens.  But, for now, I need to get to writing the next post, about my top 5 comics.  See you then.

-chris