Sunday, October 31, 2021

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


It's All Hallow's Read (aka Halloween...with scary books).  So, as I have done intermittently these past several years, here's a piece of horror 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.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, with Jacob Phillips


1988, Los Angeles, and Ethan Reckless is feeling his age. His body aches all over -- reminders of the gunshots, stabbings, and explosions he's survived -- and he's a step slower, in both a literal and intellectual sense. How did it all go to shit so fast? 

Anna, Ethan's more-than-sidekick-but-not-quite-partner-slash-best-friend is also feeling her age. Approaching thirty, with a steady boyfriend, she wants to get out from beneath Ethan's shadow, find out who she is and what she wants to make of her life. To that end, Anna's decided to move in with Dmitri, crossing the 405 freeway -- across town from where she and Ethan have worked and lived, it might as well be across the country -- and it scares Ethan. So much so, that he acts like a dick, making it easier for Anna to cut the ties necessary to shack up with her boyfriend, even if he talks through classic movies. 

Untethered, lost, Ethan dives back into his work and takes on a case that's bigger than he can handle by himself. He calls Anna, both to borrow her car and see if she wants to go in on the case with him. She agrees, but remains distant. 

On its surface, this job should be a cake walk. So, of course, everything goes to shit, just not in the way Ethan could have anticipated. Maybe if he was younger . . . ah, but there's no good to come of pursuing that thought. Even once the case is completed, despite its unsatisfactory conclusion, it isn't really over. Their target still has one card up his sleeve. How will Ethan & Anna escape that final play, and can their friendship survive, even if they get out alive? 

Destroy All Monsters is the third book in the Reckless series from writer Ed Brubaker & artist Sean Phillips, with colors by Jacob Phillips, and it's another home run for this stellar creative team. Brubaker's writing feels effortless, as he continues to hone his craft to a razor sharpness. The pacing of the book is top-notch, allowing me to dwell on a page or a panel, even as the narrative urges me forward, turning pages to see what's next. The twists and feints evolve naturally from the characters and the setting, the seedy underbelly of 80s L.A., with none of it seeming forced. And the people (using the term characters just seems wrong) all feel fully realized, even when the limits of space only allows for a quick sketch. 

In particular, for those who've been following this series and already know Ethan and Anna, this third book offers the readership a wonderful insight into their personal history, as well as their relativistic present, providing a better, and fuller, understanding of these two friends. One feels for them, as their friendship is tested throughout this story, and the audience is left to wonder how their relationship will look, going forward. It is this -- the dynamic of Ethan and Anna's relationship -- that I found most fulfilling in my reading of Destroy All Monsters, even with the expected excellence of the plot. This rupture in their friendship is the core of the book, as their relationship is the core of this entire series, and Brubaker adds so much to that dynamic with this third installment of the Reckless series. 

Sean Phillips equals his collaborator with this book, as he has done for many years. Phillips's clean linework grounds these stories, and his clear storytelling means readers are never lost, even if they're unsure of where the story may be heading. He evokes 1980s L.A. -- from the buildings to the cars to the fashions -- allowing the audience to lose themselves within the story and enhancing the reading experience to a great degree. Like Brubaker, Phillips, with his economy and precision of linework, makes it look all too easy. It is not, but it's a testament to his skill that it comes across this way. What a wonderful synergy of creative talents. I suppose that's what comes of working together these past couple of decades. 

And Jacob Phillips, Sean's son, is no slouch himself. His colors are reminiscent of watercolors, adding another dimension to the story. Sometimes the coloring is representational, setting us directly on a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood, while other times the color choices feel abstract, to a degree, evoking an emotion or feeling rather than anything resembling photorealism. And yet, it all works brilliantly. This is one of the aspects of this team's creative output that allows it to stand apart from the rest of the comics on the shelves, and I, for one, am here for it. 

Destroy All Monsters, as with so much from this creative team, is a master class in comic book storytelling. Whenever a new book from Brubaker & Phillips arrives, I always place it on the top of my to-read pile. And when I close the covers, I am never disappointed. This latest endeavor, a series of self-contained graphic novels that combine to tell a broader narrative with Ethan and Anna, has been outstanding. I love the characters. I love the stories. And I love the format. I am excited to know there is a fourth book arriving relatively soon. I can only hope there will be many more after that. Regardless, I can't wait.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

October Comics (2021): ALIENS book one


From Dark Horse Comics, written by Mark Verheiden, art by Mark A. Nelson, with lettering by Willie Schubert. This was Dark Horse's second major licensed title after a Godzilla special the previous year, and it became a ripe property for many great comic stories. 

Ten years later, Hicks & Newt are still haunted by nightmares of what they experienced on the moon of Acheron, when the aliens overran the colony and the marine complement sent to investigate the colonists' disappearance. Now, they are going back into space to gather specimens of these aliens for the government, which has ideas of creating a bioweapon from these fierce killers. Newt is looking for escape from the mental hospital where they keep her sedated, while Hicks seeks only revenge. But, unknown to most on the military ship, BioNational -- a huge corporation with the same ideas as the government -- has paid off the primary officer on the ship and is following them, in order to grab the aliens for themselves once the marines have taken care of business. Of course, everything goes to hell, because there's nothing like a happy ending -- or even a clean ending -- when aliens are involved. 

Verheiden's story is a proper sequel to the first two Aliens films and moves the story along nicely. But, I don't know if it would land so well if not for the moody, black-and-white art from Mark Nelson. Nelson's work in this series is, for me, the star. His feathery inking adds a dimension to the human characters that can be lost in very strict inkwork, such as would often be found in superhero comics, and his delineation of the aliens is breathtaking. They are dominant and creepy and intimidating all at once. I re-read this series regularly and almost always at this time of year. It's a perfect book to read as the weather turns colder and the rising breeze skitters dry leaves up the street. If you're looking for a great October read, you should check this out. It's great!


Friday, October 15, 2021

Great Comic Book Writers -- it's a visual medium



In the history of comic books, it could be argued the 1980s ushered in the time of the superstar writer. Certainly, prior to 1980, there were notable writers in comics: the two Steves, Englehart & Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Gardner Fox, and Stan Lee had burnished his myth to a high sheen through editorials and essays, as well as his many speeches on college campuses. But the breakout of writer as commodity for selling and marketing comics certainly took place in the early 80s. And the vanguard of this movement emanated from the U.K. in the form of three particular authors--Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. 


Forests of metaphorical trees have succumbed to the writings examining the works of these three writers. They imbued their stories with an adult sensibility, refusing to talk down to their audience, in a medium historically marketed toward children. They had a distance to the material--American superhero comics, in the main--that allowed them to view these characters through a different lens and bring something new and innovative to the stories. And they brought a bit of magic to the medium that ignited a passion in a generation of comic book readers, including me. But what doesn't seem to get discussed as much in these pieces is the fact that all three of these writers were also, to a greater or lesser extent, artists. And that, in my opinion, made a huge difference in their facility in crafting comic book tales. 


Within comics, Neil Gaiman is best known for his dark fantasy, Sandman. Created with a multitude of distinct artists, including Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Marc Hempel, et al., the story of Morpheus is a poignant and tragic one, encompassing multiple genres. Unlike other comic series, Sandman benefits from the various artistic styles utilized to delineate its grand narrative, with Gaiman leaning into the strengths of his myriad collaborators, in order to tell the story of the Lord of Dreams. It is an epic tale wherein readers are rewarded with multiple readings of the entire series. 

Though the artists involved should obviously be accorded the bulk of the accolades for the artistic accomplishments within Sandman, I feel that Gaiman's visual sense need also be acknowledged. Gaiman has stated in interviews that he would often do thumbnails of an issue--smaller and sketchier artistic layouts for a comic story--before scripting, in order to see how the narrative flowed and whether the focal points of the story worked. He also wanted to know where the advertisements in the monthly issues would fall, within the page count, so that he could be sure that big reveals would occur on the left side of a two-page spread, as one turned the page, thus preserving the surprise for the audience. And although Gaiman's thumbnails for his comic scripts will probably never be published, his art has seen print. Two examples include the 24-hour comic Being An Account Of The Life And Death Of The Emperor Heliogabolus, which can be seen here, and the cover for Peter David's collection of his CBG columns, But I Digress... 

One of the best examples of this application of visual sense to a comic story can be found in issue #7 of Sandman. Morpheus is confronting Dr. Dee, who took the Dream King's ruby, which is infused with much of Morpheus's power, and corrupted it, making it a weapon in Dee's hand. They are battling over the amulet and Dee unleashes a furious onslaught, eventually destroying the ruby with the outpouring of oneiric energies in a blinding flash of red. Turning the page, we see a diminutive Dr. Dee on a completely white page, a vast emptiness stretching on to infinity, as far as readers are concerned. This continues on the next page, as Dee ponders what has just happened. Then he raises his arms, triumphant, having defeated Morpheus. And we turn the page once more, to find Dee, small and insignificant, standing in the alabaster palm of Morpheus's hand. It's a stunning bit of comic book storytelling, especially the first time you see it, and it all hinges on the understanding of the visual aspects of comic books and utilizing the "camera" of the comic panel to focus on the bits necessary to convey the story. 

Grant Morrison gained prominence in America with their revitalization of Animal Man. Taking what was considered a fairly silly character in a silly suit, Morrison gave Buddy Baker (Animal Man's alter-ego) a down to earth family life, made him a vegan and an animal activist (how could Buddy not be when he utilized all these animals' abilities?), and changed Animal Man from the butt of the joke to a complex and engaging character. And people responded. Initially contracted to write a 4-issue mini series, Animal Man was upgraded to an ongoing series, and Morrison went on to write a total of 26 issues, which are some of the best comics you may ever read. Certainly, Morrison's distinct point of view buttressed by wide-ranging interests helped to launch this title, as well as its young writer, to critical acclaim. But again, Morrison's artistic background and their understanding of comics as a visual medium must also be considered essential to the success of Animal Man and all their subsequent works. Morrison, like Gaiman, is known for thumbnailing his scripts, most notably seen in the anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum, which Morrison created with Dave McKean. In the back of that edition the full thumbnails for the entire story are available to examine. Morrison also drew a page for his seminal work, The Invisibles, and also contributed a well delineated sketch to Bryan Talbot's landmark comic series, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright


A prime example of this visual approach can be found in issue #5 of Animal Man, "The Coyote Gospel." In this tale, a coyote that walks on its hind legs and apparently cannot die has become a bogeyman across the deserts of Death Valley. One long haul trucker in particular, after having encountered the coyote a year prior, has come to think of this animal as the devil incarnate and plans to kill it, to be rid of its curse. When Animal Man comes across these two, the coyote reanimating its limbs after having been shot and blown up by an explosive charge planted by the trucker, the coyote wordlessly hands to Buddy the parchment it carries around its neck. On the parchment is laid out the story of the coyote, a being from an alternate dimension where the animals that live there only know strife, and the destruction and victimization is eternal, since their bodies instantly renew themselves when harmed. But Crafty, the name of this coyote, wanted an end to this and approached God and said he would do anything if only peace would come to their world. And God told Crafty that if he wished, he could be sent to live in the hell in the dimension above, and while he lived and bore the suffering of the world, peace would reign below. And so, Crafty was reborn in Death Valley, and he could not die, and he suffered. But with his immortality, Crafty hoped that one day he might be able to return to his world and throw God off his throne to build a better world for everyone. With this story, Crafty hoped to recruit other beings with powers who might assist him. Animal Man is the first of these recruits. 

And here is where Morrison reveals an advanced understanding of the visual aspects of the comic book medium. Throughout this origin story, the audience has seen images from Crafty's original world with the narrative shared through text boxes--this could be Crafty speaking, though it seems unlikely, and thus, in readers' minds, it must be the actual text from the parchment. But, as we reach the end, there's a glimpse of the parchment in Animal Man's hands, and then we pull back to see more of it--squiggles and markings that are gibberish to our Terran eyes--at which point Animal Man provides the emotional kick in the gut when he says: "...I can't read it." Morrison understood how readers would accept the text boxes for Crafty's tale as the text on the parchment, and only at the end, when the foreign alphabet is revealed, would the full realization of Crafty's tragedy become evident. It's brilliant and a revelation that might almost exclusively be achievable in comic book form. 

Moore started out as a cartoonist, selling two strips in 1979 -- Roscoe Moscow to Sounds, a weekly music magazine, and Maxwell the Magic Cat to his local Northants Post. He found his labor intensive style too time consuming and decided to focus more on writing than art. But the experience of writing and drawing a strip for publication would certainly lend itself well to his career that followed. In 1986, Moore (with artist Dave Gibbons) reimagined the Charlton heroes bought by DC Comics and created the landmark series, Watchmen, to great critical acclaim. Watchmen has become the touchstone for superhero comics and is considered by most fans as Moore's magnum opus. With this series, Moore and Gibbons worked together to exploit the unique aspects of the comic book storytelling medium, to great effect, storytelling aspects and approaches that, as should be obvious, revolved around the visual primacy of the medium. 

One of the unique aspects of the comic book that Moore & Gibbons wished to utilize was its format, i.e. the fact that, though a comic is like a book with its pagination and a dedicated reading order (left to right in America) and like a film or television show with its visuals, a comic book is, in fact, neither of these things. Unlike a book, a comic has a strong visual component. Unlike film, which is intended to tell its story from beginning to end without stopping, in a comic one can easily jump front to back within the story and make comparisons of imagery and scenes, in order to better understand symbolic, thematic, or other facets of the narrative. In Watchmen, there are myriad instances where these two creators take advantage of this aspect of comics. There are recurring visual motifs, within chapters proper as well as across the book as a whole, such as the bloody smiley face button or clock faces, that add layers to the story being told. Scenes, especially those set at the intersection in town with the newsstand, are told from various points of view at different times, with characters from prior scenes visible in the background, not only to enrich the whole, but also to, again, add layers to the story on the page. So much happens in the gutters and the backgrounds of Watchmen, it's more than can be processed with a single reading. And it all stems from the fact that comics is a visual medium. 

A great example in Watchmen of Moore & Gibbons utilizing the visual aspects of comics to full effect can be found in the mystery of Rorschach's true identity. What readers discover, with the end of issue #5, is that he was right in front of them the whole time. 

In issue #1 of Watchmen, pages 4 and 5, Moore & Gibbons introduce us to Rorschach, and with the layout of the panels actually reveal who Rorschach is (a fact only obvious upon a subsequent reading). In the final panel of page 4, in the light of day, we see the vagrant carrying his "The End is Nigh" sign, in front of a multi-story office or apartment building, an ad for 'mmeltdowns!' on the side of the building mostly obscured by shadow. In the first panel of page 5, the very next panel, we see the same scene, but at night, with the 'mmeltdowns!' ad now fully visible on the side of the building, and in the foreground is the top of the fedora that Rorschach, whose character introduction occurs on this page, wears. With this mirroring of the imagery between these two successive panels, Moore & Gibbons were showing the audience who Rorschach is. But it isn't obvious for a few reasons: 

One -- when we see the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign, Rorschach hasn't yet been introduced, so when he is on page 5, all of our attention goes toward that. 

Two -- the scene may look familiar to readers but it isn't readily obvious that it's the exact same spot, as the scenes occur in day and night, respectively, making certain details obscured or not, accordingly. 

Three -- the first image is at the end of one page, feeling like a summation of that scene, while the second is at the top of the next page, starting a new scene and providing a strict demarcation line between the two, which, along with the time differential, severs any connection between them in our mind.


In issue #2, three of the remaining heroes -- Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, and Ozymandias -- attend the funeral of their former comrade, the Comedian. Outside the cemetery, at the beginning of the service, we see the vagrant with his "End is Nigh" sign walk past the entrance of the cemetery. At the end of the service, after a mysterious attendee places a wreath of roses on the Comedian's (Edward Morgan Blake's) grave and exits the cemetery, we see the same vagrant passing by once more, following this mysterious attendee, who, it turns out, is Moloch, a former antagonist of the heroes. Back at his apartment, Moloch hangs his coat and hat and goes into the kitchen to prepare something to eat, when Rorschach launches himself from Moloch's emptied refrigerator (in the shadows of the middle panel on this page, Gibbons has drawn all the frozen foods, taken from the fridge to make room for Rorschach, in a corner out of Moloch's sight, one of myriad great visual details) in order to interrogate him about the funeral Rorschach "heard" Moloch had attended. 

Again, Moore & Gibbons are putting clues into the book that would allow readers to see who Rorschach is, if only they could focus on the invisible vagrant in the background and make the connection between him and Rorschach's sudden appearance with information that would have been challenging to get in such a short time. But these creators are counting on their audience to focus on the main point of the various pages, allowing the vagrant to pass through panels as something that fleshes out the world and makes things feel more real, rather than seeing what, upon reflection, feels like an obvious connection revealing Rorschach's secret identity. 

A final example of how Moore & Gibbons placed clues into Watchmen about who Rorschach really was comes in issue #5. We see Rorschach, in his civilian identity, eating in the Gunga Diner, as he watches his maildrop, a public trash receptacle, across the street. The scene is shown from Rorschach's POV, so readers never see his face, only his hands, in a few instances. Later, as the scene shifts to the newsstand owner on that same intersection where the diner is, the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign is seen, twice, digging through the trash receptacle that is Rorschach's maildrop. Again, Moore & Gibbons are showing their audience who Rorschach is "in real life," but our prejudices do not allow for dots to be connected. Having seen this vagrant earlier in the series, readers know his appearance to be less than shabby, indicating he is not well off and may even be homeless. So, to see him digging through trash does not seem that unusual, if we see it at all, since, again, this is done in the background of panels and  is never the focus. And just to make sure it does not feel like a cheat, Moore & Gibbons show the vagrant digging through the trash two times in the same day. Why else would he sift through rubbish a second time if he were not Rorschach checking on his maildrop? It's a wonderful bit of sleight of hand by Moore & Gibbons, and it is this that makes multiple readings of Watchmen so enjoyable and rewarding. 

With the "British Invasion" of American comics, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman were at the forefront of those U.K. creators who came to epitomize a certain type of storytelling in mainstream American comics and helped usher in the era of the superstar writer. They have only added to that legacy in the decades since, and their works in the comic book medium are often held up as examples of works one can share with non comic reading friends. Certainly, the point of view and varied interests of this triumvirate account for much of that, but the fact that each of them had a background in art, and comic art particularly, also seems to go a long way to understanding the impact they have had on American comics, as well as comics in general. And if you don't believe me, why not check out some of their books, I cannot imagine you would be disappointed.