Featured Posts

Checking in, checking out again Although just at the moment I feel close to it. -- I mean, hi! Here's a lightning fast update on what's happening with me right now. My day job is kicking my butt. A lot. And I'm not being left with a lot of time or energy for much else. That includes Obituarist II: Dead Man's Data - but I am really close to finishing it, I swear. It's about 30-40% longer...

Read more

Burn notice I've kind of got the shits with myself at the moment. Sure, I've been busy. I have a demanding day job, we just moved house and I like to hang out with my friends so that we don't forget each other. But we've reached a point where those stop feeling like reasons and start feeling like excuses, and the thing they're failing to excuse is not writing. Shut up, Batman....

Read more

Moving on up So yeah, we moved. It was a pretty big deal. ...okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we're still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture. So...

Read more

Games for writers I like games. This comes as no surprise, I know; it's about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I've written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill. Anyway, GenCon (the...

Read more

Carry on up the Amazon I've been thinking a lot about Amazon lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about them since the end of July, when I did my end-of-financial year tally of ebook sales. I have two sale/publication channels - Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), who fairly obviously handle Amazon (and nothing else), and Smashwords, who convert manuscripts into a variety of formats...

Read more

In media res

1

Category : reading

But it hasn’t all been writing about maps, travelling to Brisbane and vomiting in the Rydges toilets down here.

I’ve also been reading! And (shockingly) watching TV! So let’s talk about that for a bit tonight and throw some recommendations your way.

NOS4R2

Jesus christ, this fucking brainstabber of a book. This book tore my fucking head and heart out and showed them to me.

…that’s a positive recommendation, just so we’re clear.

The latest from Joe Hill – whose comic series Locke & Key I have gushed about before – is a massive doorstop of horror, a book that by its sheer size invites comparison to the work of his father. But other than a couple of ever-so-slight background Easter eggs for some of King’s novels (including Doctor Sleep, which I plan to read in Europe when I’m there), NOS4R2 is entirely its own beast, and what a terrifying beast it is, a smiling child with a mouthful of fishhook teeth that will cut your fingers off and laugh innocently at your pain.

I won’t bother reprising the plot – you can find that anywhere. But if I can just talk about craft… god, this book is amazing. The relentlessness of its thematic beats, the implications of its horror worldbuilding, the emotional stab-stab-gouge of what characters go through… it’s a masterwork, it really is. And an audacious and unpredictable one at that, one that flies in the face of much storytelling logic. The first 250 pages cover 20+ years of story; the next 300 or so cover about three days – but this lurch in pacing actually works to build up tension slowly and inexorably and then drive the book into your eyeballs like a wound-up spring.

INTO YOUR EYEBALLS. YES, EVEN IF YOU’RE ON A PLANE FROM BRISBANE AT ARSE O’CLOCK.

Read this book. Read everything Joe Hill writes. Let Christmasland and scissors-for-the-drifter sink hooks into your brain.

It’ll be fun. Horrible fun.

River of Bones

I went into the blood bank yesterday for a platelet donation, which my new job actually specifically provides as a form of paid leave. Whoots! And what better way to spend two nauseated hours with a giant needle sticking into my elbow vein than pulling out the old Kindle and gulping down a horror novella!?

Yes, yes, probably plenty of ways but shut up and bear with me.

I’d seen many recommendations for River of Bones on the internets, but wanted to get NOS4R2 finished (and back to the library) before starting it – and that was a good plan, because it meant that I moved from a sprawling and expansive horror story to a tight, narrowly-focused one. This is a fragmented, hallucinatory story about bad places and bad people, garbled memories and sexual danger, ghosts and men in black and the relentless heat of the Australian countryside – a terrific little gem with gleaming and poisonous edges.

It’s not perfect – I would have liked it to be 2-3000 words longer and have slightly better proofreading – but it’s a very well-crafted, very spooky piece of work, one that hints at larger, darker pictures but leaves you wanting, one that refuses to take the easy way out. You can get it on the Kindle Store for very little money and that is something that I think all of you should do right away yes now is good now yes.

(And as an aside, I met author Jodi Cleghorn at GenreCon and she’s just an excellent human. And one who understands the value of karaoke.)

Lazarus

This is the new comic series from Greg Rucka and Michael Lark, and if that isn’t enough to send you directly to the comic store to pick up the first low-priced trade then I don’t even know why we’re friends, I mean GOD.

Anyway, Lazarus is a powerful cyberpunk thriller from two creators at the absolute top of their game. It’s about a world of haves and have-nots, where a handful of wealthy Families divvy up the world, and everyone not related to them is either a Serf or meaningless, disenfranchised Waste. It’s a story of Forever Carlyle, the genetically-enhanced enforcer of her family, the unkillable Lazarus that punishes their enemies. And it’s the story of what happens when a killing machine doesn’t want to kill; when she starts to realise that the people she loves don’t actually love her back.

The first collection of this series just dropped and it is terrific (and really goddamn cheap to boot). Rucka is one of my favourite comics writers and he is doing great work here – creating corrupt, venal systems but leaving it to his characters to find their own way within them and make their own judgements. And it’s a story wonderfully suited to Lark’s realistic art style and dynamic sense of storytelling – grounded and tactile while still dynamic and engaging.

This is great comics. No lie.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Um… yeah. This thing.

Like all nerds I am incapable of watching any kind of TV show connected to my tribe, hoping against hope that this 40-minute chunk of video would validate 35-plus years of dreaming about the Justice League fighting Starro. Heroes broke my heart; Smallville pissed on my heart giggling; Arrow turkey-slapped my heart yelling stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself. But Agents of SHIELD would change all that! Joss Whedon! Avengers spin-off! The rich setting of the Marvel Universe!

As it turns out, my heart is unbruised but is considering just quietly drinking itself to death on Wednesday nights instead. Because this show is just bland bland bland; it’s just a whiter, duller version of Fringe with less imagination and more mediocre one-liners. All the crazy potential of the Marvel Universe is just ignored, with nothing but the occasional mention of ‘Stark’ and ‘Romanov’ and a couple of afterthought cameos, and what’s left is yet another procedural about attractive Americans solving not-especially-interesting crimes.

Hmm. Okay, I’m being a bit unfair. The show’s been steadily improving, and last night’s episode had a decent modicum of tension and energy. And next week’s has actually superhuman antics and a modicum of special effects at last! I just wish it wasn’t so unambitious and easy, so reticent to embrace the innate craziness of the genre. Because even the edges of the superhero genre are rich grounds for imagination – Powers and Gotham Central showed us that – and drilling a bit further down into that ground would give Agents of SHIELD a much-needed lift.

Oh well. It’s still going to be better than that young-Commissioner-Gordon-with-no-Batman series that’s apparently going to be a thing. Boy, that sounds like fun.

NOT.

Feeling a bit comical

Category : linkage, reading

I’ve got comics on my mind this week. Which, okay, is pretty normal, but I have specific reasons for it this time.

We saw Iron Man 3 on Sunday, and I thought it was terrific. It’s been ages since we’ve seen a new Shane Black film – not since the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang  - and it’s a joy to see him working as writer and director again. Black brings a real snap and sizzle to the script, filled with strong dialogue, tight pacing and genuinely engaging moments of humour, unlike the overstuffed and slapsticky Iron Man 2. Downey is great (naturally), Ben Kingsley steals the show and I would watch three movies that were just about Don Cheadle’s Jim Rhodes running around and shooting dudes, because Don Cheadle fucking rocks.

What’s really interesting about IM3, though (no spoilers) is the tonal shift it brings to the Marvel films. This is much more a thriller than a superhero movie, and many of the genre elements have been minimised or taken out entirely. Yes, Tony Stark flies around in Iron Man armour, but not as much as in the previous films; instead the focus is on the man outside the armour, the ingenuity he brings to solving problems and the toll that his actions take on him. It’s really clever stuff, but it’s also got plenty of great action sequences, included the extended showdown at the end. All in all it’s great work, and makes me really look forward to this wave of post-Avengers movies.

Unfortunately not all the Marvel news is good. I’ve really liked the Marvel Heroic RPG that came out last year, which I talked about a while ago here (and on my gaming Tumblr Save vs Facemelt); it married an engagingly interactive system with narrative concepts and placed them within a context of (mostly) playing established characters in big, complex event stories. It took a lot of risks, and it had a very good reception, winning acclaim and sales.

But not enough sales for Marvel management, apparently, who pulled the license last week, bringing the line to a sudden halt. The cancellation was so thorough that they even removed the right to continue selling PDFs of the current titles, which have ceased to be purchasable as of yesterday. No-one’s saying why the license was pulled, but it’s likely that Marvel just didn’t feel the income from the game was worth the bother. It’s a saddening move, especially as it (presumably) cuts the freelance writers off from being paid for their now-unpublishable work.

I have all the PDFs, and I’m hoping to run the Annihilation Event for my group later this year, but I’m sorry for everyone that will never get a chance now to play this excellent game.

And speaking of saddening moves in comics, the website Comics Alliance also shut down suddenly this week, as parent company AOL terminated it (along with a number of other media sites). In an industry where most sites just reprint press releases or fantasize about casting choices, Comics Alliance was a smart, engaging site that mixed news with humour and genuinely insightful commentary, especially on the representation of woman and minorities in superhero comics.

Plus they had a guy writing for them who really liked Batman. Which goes a long way with me.

There are a lot of very talented, very passionate writers now unemployed as a result of the CA shutdown, which is the biggest shame. I’m still tracking them separately, listening to (and donating to) the War Rocket Ajax podcast, following people on Tumblr and Twitter and generally giving them my attention. You should consider that too, if you’re into any kind of comics. Here’s hoping they soon find new projects to work on.

I’d like to hope that some other site will step up to fill the commentary gap left by CA, but I’m not holding my breath.

Okay, happier topic. FREE COMICS!

Yes, this Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the day when comic stores around the world host events and give away comics from publishers big and small. The comics themselves are usually just teasers, samples and promo items – nice to check out but hardly essential – but what the day is really about is connecting with your local store, with fellow fans and nerds, with writers and artists and just generally having a good time. And, it should be emphasised, bringing young kids out to show the joy of comics and dressing up as Wonder Girl.

My not-quite-local-but-close-enough store is the incomparable All Star Comics in Lonsdale Street, which is a great shop run by great guys. Last year the queue snaked through the store four times, down the elevator shaft and out into the street, so this year they’re starting in the street, with an Artist’s Alley setup in Hardware Lane and manned by forty local comics artists. Man, I hope it doesn’t rain too much.

So anyway, that’s going to be great fun. If you’re in Melbourne, go check it out; if not, swing past your own store and see what festivities they have on. And then buy some comics, because the stores still have to pay for shipping on the comics they’re giving away.

And with that, it’s time to get my shoes on and go see They Might Be Giants.

Hell. Yeah.

 

Cutting back and getting down

Category : linkage, reading, writing

Tonight’s going to be a quick one, folks, for reasons I will get into at the end – quick and composed of bits.

There’s probably a dirty joke in there somewhere.

Inscribe is Darebin Council’s annual arts/writing journal and newsletter. Last year I wrote an article on self-publishing which seemed to go down alright. It must have, because this year they asked me to contribute some fiction to the new issue!

The launch of the new edition of Inscribe is 4.30pm next Sunday, the 9th of December, at the Uniting Church in High Street, Northcote.  I’ll be reading my short story ‘For Sale, Baby Heads, Never Used’, which is appearing in the issue along with ‘Black Veil and Gloves’. Come along – it’ll be a treat! Especially for those who like to hear stories read in a stammering, incoherent rush!

I’ll get some practice in. I promise.

Just a reminder to check the various Next Big Thing authors I tagged on Wednesday – PM Newton, Sarah Jansen, Jessica Marsh and Tor Roxburgh. They’ll be writing up their own contributions to the chain next Wednesday. And stay tuned for an interview with one of these ladies in the next few weeks!

I’ve been reading almost nothing but graphic novels for the last few months, and I’m reaching the point where I really want – need – to change gears and get back to prose. Comics are amazing, but they require a different mode of narrative and of reading, and I have to switch my mindset back to prose before I start breaking all my ideas down into panels rather than paragraphs.

That said, I’ve just started reading Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavy’s Comic Book History of Comics, and it’s an absolute corker. This is a really engaging, entertaining look at the development of the comics field and artform over the years, from the 1920s to the early 2010s, that mixes genuine facts and quotes with appropriately-styled caricature art. Huge fun, dense (but not too dense) with information and pitched at a level that pretty much any reader can enjoy. Highly recommended.

I also really need to read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which by all accounts is an amazing and in-depth look at Marvel in the 60s through to the 90s. Complete with all the bits about backbiting, lying, infidelity and fistfights. You know, the good stuff. Maybe I’ll get it for Christmas.

I am not ready for Christmas.

Oh boy, Christmas!

And what better way to celebrate this most religious/secular/commercial of holidays than with the gift of free ebooks?

From now until the end of the year, you can download both Hotel Flamingo and Godheads for free (TOTES FREE) at Smashwords! Just follow the links and use the discount codes - QK88W for Godheads and DN72A for Flamingo – at checkout.

And don’t forget that there are six of my short stories free to download there as well, from the thriller ‘Pension Day’ to the absurdist ‘The Recent 86 Tram Disaster’ to the Obituarist tie-in ‘Inbox Zero’.

(The Obituarist is not available for free, sorry – but if you did want to give someone a social media crime story for Christmas, then surely $2.99 is not too onerous a cost for those you love. Go on. Buy it for them. Show them you care.)

Ho ho freakin’ ho!

Some of you may be thinking ‘Didn’t he give away the same ebooks last Christmas? Where’s something new?’

And that brings me to my last point, which is that I really, really need to get back to work on Raven’s Blood. Because it has been more than six months since I finished and published anything, and the time that I could coast on that has long since finished.

I’ve set myself the goal (as stated in my last post) of finishing the first draft by the end of January. There, I said it – you’re all witnesses. And that’s doable, since this is (probably) a novella of 30 000-odd words; I can certainly handle that in two months.

But not if I’m losing 2-4 hours each week by writing two 1000+-word blog posts.

Because of this, I’m cutting back to one post a week for the next couple of months, and probably shorter, pithier posts at that. Hopefully this won’t tear anyone’s heart out too badly; they can repair that kind of damage with outpatient surgery these days, I’m told. There’ll still be posts, and not just bitty ones like these, but I’m only going to write them after I finish my scheduled chunk of draft-work first, as per my advice from last weekend.

So it’s heads-down-bums-up for a while. Please forgive the silence. I hope to have something awesome to show you at the end of it.

Pretty effing great

Category : reading, superheroes

I’ve been neglecting proper grown-up reading lately in favour of superhero comic collections, largely because the local library system keeps buying more and more of the damned things. (Back onto novels next week, though. Probably.)

Anyhoo, tonight I want to talk about one particular run of comics that’s well worth a look if you like Really Big Ideas – because it has a lot of them, and pretty neat ones at that. Normally that’s a segue into something by Grant Morrison, but this time I’m speaking of Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four.

   

Now, I’m not a Fantastic Four fan; I’ve always found them the least interesting supergroup in comics and the ‘super-family’ concept has never clicked for me. (Possibly because I struggle with the concept of ‘family’ at the best of times.) Also, Mister Fantastic is boring and a dick. But at the same time, it’s the series where the Stan-and-Jack magic first took shape and revolutionised the whole medium and genre, and the place where Kirby started throwing out that unending series of incredible, impossible ideas – so there’s history there, and precedent, and the best takes on the title are when a writer puts their own spin and direction on that unfettered inventiveness.

And that’s just what Hickman does, putting together a massive, multi-volume storyline that explodes with mad inspiration. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me just rattle off a few elements – an interdimensional council of Reed Richardses, time travel, a Negative Zone cult, giant mad space gods, the Kree, the Inhumans, even more Inhumans, Galactus, time dilation, cities full of alien life, Nu-Earth on the far side of the galaxy, Reed’s time-travelling father Nathaniel, interdimensional battles, super-intelligent children, even more super-intelligent children, alliances with the Four’s worst enemies against a greater threat and Doctor Doom being a stone motherfucker, all combining and building into one uber-conflict. Along with this come themes of sacrifice, loss, catastrophe and destiny, plus Hickman’s exceptional gift for character development, dialogue and conflict (plus occasional, very clever comedy). 

   

Once the series hits the death of Johnny Storm – that got reported in the mainstream media, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything – it changes both direction and title, becoming The Future Foundation, or FF, counterbalancing superheroics with teaching a group of super-genius kids (and a giant robot dragon-man). This is also the point where they get new costumes and Spider-Man joins the team, because both those things sell comics. And they’re still bloody good comics.

(Also, Spider-Man is a more interesting character than the Human Torch. That’s right, I went there.)

After a year or so of FF issues (two collections), the old title and numbering comes back but FF remains, splitting the focus into two different comics as things build to a payoff. And a pretty awesome payoff it is. Hickman is still writing both series, but the last arc of each is denouement, aftermath and wind-down; they’ve yet to be collected into trades, but you don’t need them right now; you can knock over all eight trades currently available – like I did in a rush this week – and be very satisfied with the ending you get.

   

Which is not to say it’s perfect. The series stumbles badly in the second Fantastic Four collection, which introduces the four cities/groups that become hubs of the coming uber-conflict. These four issues are both heavy on exposition and light on conflict/action; they all involve some/all of the Four going to one of the cities and then standing around doing nothing while things get foreshadowed for later. The foreshadowing is necessary,  true, but it could have been done with a lot more energy and a lot less blatancy. Things pick up after that, and there’s lots of payoff from that slowdown, but pacing problems recur for the rest of the run.

That passivity also comes back at times, and I think that’s an ongoing issue for Hickman; in many of his books, protagonists seem to be overwhelmed mentally or emotionally by events, and take a backseat or spectator role while things happen and/or other characters manipulate things. Throughout the series, control over events falls or is taken from the hands of the Four and is taken up by others, especially Valeria or Nathaniel Richards. They’re interesting characters, yes, and I can see the kind of story Hickman is aiming for – one about destiny and immensity, and the payoff of good and bad decisions against that context – but it’s not always satisfying.

Oh, and the artwork is pretty variable and inconsistent, but it’s never so bad as to be unacceptable and we’re here to talk about writing.

   

But in the end these problems don’t detract from the strengths of the series – the imagination and impossibility that is the hallmark of pure comics, married to sci-fi visions and a willingness to put characters through an emotional wringer to get a better story. And it is a pretty goddamn amazeballs story.

So get out there and read these comics. They’re neat.

And now, back to proper novels. Well, once I read Hickman’s new series The Manhattan Projects. Oh, and I grabbed Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga; really looking forward to that. And there’s a new volume of Scalped at the library ah fuck it I ain’t never reading stories without pictures no more.

Dateline: WRITING

Category : linkage, reading

Hi folks,

Just a very quick, very half-arsed update tonight. Why? Because I am hard at work WRITING.

Specifically, I am writing a new Kendall Barber/The Obituarist short story, ‘Inbox Zero’, with an eye towards having it finished and up online for completely free download this Sunday night. That’s right, you heard it here first; refocus your browser onto this site in just three nights to read a cracking 2500-odd words about death and the internet featuring everyone’s favourite social media undertaker.

But that won’t happen if I don’t finish this first draft tonight and then shop it around my alpha readers for feedback. So, you know, no time for love, Doctor Jones.

Well, okay, time for one bit of love – love for the amazing graphic novel Infinite Kung Fu, written and drawn by Kagan McLeod and published by Top Shelf. I read this last week, and it is incredible. It doesn’t just have some kung fu. It doesn’t even have a lot of kung fu. It has INFINITY kung fu. And if your heart is so dead that you cannot take joy in seeing a P-Funk grandmaster pull off his own arms in order to execute flawless kata against the legions of the undead, then what the hell are you doing reading my blog?

Honestly. Some people.

Anyway, Infinite Kung Fu is more than 400 pages long, it costs like 25 bucks (maybe $35 in Australia) and it is MADE OF WIN. You should read it.

And now, back to work.

Rekindled

Category : ebooks, reading

So the big news this week… well, okay, there were lots of big news items this week, good and bad, and the following doesn’t really qualify. I’ll start again.

So the news this week that’s only of interest to a limited number of people (God bless you one and all) is the announcement of new Kindle models from Amazon, including bigger, better, 142% more awesome versions of the Kindle Fire that still can’t be bought or used in Australia, and the Kindle Paperwhite that features integrated front-lightning for better visibility and a portmanteau name that sounds like some kind of 4E Dungeons & Dragons monster.

Plus, if that’s not exciting enough, there are new Kobo tablets coming out (which presumably can be used in Australia), new mini-iPads that have e-reader apps and the iBookstore, and presumably a system where an adorable kitten follows you around and projects a book from its luminescent eyes onto the nearest wall for your reading pleasure is just weeks from a beta release.

The upshot is this – more ereaders, more ereader-readers, more ebooks, something something, I get all the moneys and Hugos. Well, okay, probably not that last bit. But for all us writers and readers that embrace the E, our numbers are growing and will continue to grow as hardware gets better and cheaper. Yay!

So what does that mean in terms of the way we read books, the way we approach reading books? Do ebook readers have different habits, desires and needs than regular book readers? Does the Kindle change our very nature as human beings?

Well, maybe not. But speaking as someone who’s owned a Kindle for about 6 months, it’s definitely affected the way I approach finding and reading books, largely in three ways:

Impulse buyer is me

It used to be that I bought maybe 4-5 books a year, if that. For a long time I’ve only purchased books that I’ve known (or been very sure) that I would like, and that I would either read more than once or want to lend to friends. For everything else, I would hit up one of the three library networks where I’m a member and borrow what I wanted.

These days? If it’s priced anywhere up to about $3, I’ll grab nearly any damn ebook that hits my eye, even if I have no idea what it’s about. If an author spruiks a sale or special or giveaway on Twitter then there’s a good chance I’ll just grab it on the chance it’s good – and if it’s a freebie, I won’t even care about that. Sure, I end up leaving many of those books fallow in the Kindle’s memory for weeks or months until I remember they’re there, and I delete some of them within four pages ‘cos they’re terrible, but the important thing is that they got my money.

If an ebook is somewhere between 3 and 6 dollars, I’m not quite as impulsive; I’ll hem and haw and think about it and then I’ll buy it anyway because fuck it, it’s five bucks, and you can’t even get drunk in this country for five bucks. (You can in Fiji, if you’re curious.) It’s only when we start heading towards the ten dollar mark that the brakes kick in and I start thinking ‘well, maybe this is a library book after all’. And then if it’s from an author I really like and want to support there’s a pretty good chance I’ll get it. But probably not right away.

More judgey than ever

You might think that getting so many books so cheaply, my standards would relax to accommodate different levels of ability, formatting and editing, especially for those plucky independent authors much like myself.

And you would be wrong, because THE IMPERFECT MUST BURN.

If anything, the recurring issues of formatting and layout that pop up in many ebooks – random italics, too-small fonts, unclear paragraph separation – annoy me more than ever, because I know that they’re fixable, and obvious, and it means the publisher hasn’t bothered to go through the finished file to check the details and make corrections. It says to me that they don’t respect the e-market, and in turn I find it hard to respect them back. So flaws that I might ignore in a printed book – because printer errors happen and they’re not the publisher’s fault – rankle me much more in an ebook that can be instantly repaired if someone gave a fuck.

(If you’re thinking ‘well fuck, man, your ebooks aren’t perfect either’, you’re right, and I need to do more to improve them. When I do I’ll let y’all know.)

And, of course, I give up on a book if it’s badly written. But that goes without saying, surely.

Goodbye attention span

I’ve always been one of those people who would have 3 or 4 or 8 books on the go all at once, reading one for a bit and then switching to another. The Kindle amplifies that tendency one billionfold, because at least in the old days I’d normally only have one book (okay, maybe two) with me at a time. Now I have 30-plus with me all the time, and as soon as I start reading one I begin thinking ‘maybe I should read something else’ and I can and I do and oh god I have a problem.

So yeah, I find it really hard to stay on track to read one book at a time, even when I really enjoy the book in question. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, because the writer still gets paid and I (eventually) still read the book. But on the other hand, skipping between books willy-nilly like a meth-addled toddler in the kindergarten library makes it hard to maintain a constant grip on what I’m reading, which makes it harder to consider and review it at the end. And as we know, I think reviews are a Good Thing.

Okay, so what?

Well, working from the entirely warranted assumption that every ebook reader is EXACTLY LIKE ME, it seems to suggest that they’re folks who snap up books on impulse but don’t get around to reading them until later, that they read many books at a time and will jump from one to another at the drop of a hat, that they are quick to anger and slow to forgive (or maybe that’s wizards, I forget) and that they like books that are less than five or six bucks.

So should writers work towards that market? Should we write ebooks that are inexpensive, that compartmentalise easily, that can stand being picked up and put down again, that have OMG KEEP READING hooks every 2-3 pages?

Well, um, that’s kind of what I am writing or trying to write, more or less by coincidence.

But no, I don’t think we should do that; I think we should write the books we want, the way we want, the length we want, and put them out at the price we want. I think we should make them as good as we possibly can, both in content and presentation, so that readers should keep coming back once they’re read something else for a bit. I think we should be aware of buying habits and price books at a level that reflects their quality but doesn’t discourage readers.

And I think we should accept the horrible fact that even after someone buys your book they may not finish reading it for months or even years – so you’re possibly not going to get reviews and word-of-mouth sales quickly. And all you can do is shrug and accept it and keep going. Because with luck, they’re tell you you’re great eventually. Before the stars grow cold.

In other news, I’ve been feeling the occasional urge to write about roleplaying stuff, but I don’t feel that this blog is the appropriate place for it.

So I’ve set up a Tumblr called Save vs Facemelt, which I’m going to use to post occasional thoughts, reviews and hilarious bon mots about gaming, as well as meeting the quota of animated GIF traffic that you have to agree to under Tumblr’s terms and conditions.

I’ve kicked it off with some entries about Evil Hat’s upcoming Atomic Robo RPG, which we playtested last night (which is why this Sunday night blog post is coming out on Monday night). Go check it out if you’re interested and simply cannot get enough of me.

God knows I can’t.

Six-pack of power

Category : reading, superheroes

Okay folks, I know I’ve been slack on the posts lately, but this week has been CRAY CRAY and I have to shoot up to QLD tomorrow morning for meetings and liquor and stuff. There’ll be a long post on Sunday – well, probably – well, maybe – but I don’t have time to finish it tonight.

So as Superhero Month slouches towards Bethlehem, here’s a very, very quick roundup of six superheroic things you should check out if you haven’t already.

Hitman: The last volume of Ennis and McCrea’s DC series from the nineties finally got released this month. Hitman was one of DC’s best – a smart, funny, moving tribute to hitman movies and stories with occasional appearances by zombie penguins. If the ending doesn’t make you cry then you are a soulless monster.

Top Ten: Alan Moore proved that despite being a hairy pessimistic curmudgeon with no faith in human nature, he could still write one of the most fun, engaging superhero stories ever, the story of a precinct of super-cops in an impossible cross-genre city populated solely by superheroes. And Gene Ha’s art is, as ever, incredible.

The Marvels Project: This side project from the Captain America team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting explored Marvel’s World War II history, with equal parts retelling of existing tales and bringing in new ideas. It’s a nice, thrillerish take that still has room to be a stirring war story, and I do love me some Angel (not the X-Men one, the cool vigilante with a moustache one).

Knight and Squire: The side characters from Grant Morrison’s Batman stories get their own miniseries collection, showing a very British side to the DC Universe that’s mostly built on 1970s pop culture references and jokes that Americans aren’t supposed to get. But if you know about The Goodies and The Beano, then Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have a great superhero comic for you.

Seven Soldiers of Victory: What the DC Reboot should have been. A tour-de-force of mad ideas and ambition from Grant Morrison and various artists poking at all the corners of the superhero genre, and the way the world can reshape itself around them, to stitch together a patchwork quilt of awesome. Frankenstein lives.

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: I’m finally getting around to buying this cartoon series on DVD, having seen a handful of really engaging episodes the last time I was in the US. Looking forward to it.

Also, as an aside, you can find me on the Read@UTS blog right now, talking with Sean Riley and author Pam Newton about detective and crime stories. This was a super-fun interview and it helped me sort a few things out in my head about the genre. Go check it out!

And with that, I gotta go pack.

Superprose!

2

Category : reading, superheroes

Hi folks,

I know I keep saying I’ll write short posts, but it’s painfully obvious that even my short posts are far too long. And when I actually set out to write a substantial piece – like the one I’m working on now – it’s easy to clock in at 2000 words.

But this is actually a short post, partially because I’m knackered, partially because I’m hoping you will do the work for me in the comments.

Tonight’s topic: superhero prose fiction! What’s out there? What’s worth reading?

There have always been superhero novels out there – well, ‘always’ isn’t true, but certainly since Superfolks in the 70s and the Wild Cards series in the 80s – but there’s been a definite increase in the number of them on the market in the last few years. Obviously there are plenty of DC/Marvel novelizations and tie-in stories out there, most of them for young readers but a few for grown-ups (Greg Rucka’s Batman: No Man’s Land novel is one of the best of them), and now there are a lot more to choose from.

I’ve read a few of these books, good (Soon I Will Be Invincible), mediocre/uneven (the Masked anthology) and bad (Black and White). And I’ve had the chance to read Greg Stolze’s new work-in-progress, which is going to smash people’s faces in with awesome when it’s published. But I’d like to read more. Checking out the usual sources of lists (Goodreads, Wikipedia and Amazon) throws up a bewildering number of titles, with little to guide me in the way of quality.

So I’d like to put the question to the group. Have you read any of these? Are there any that have been missed? What was worth the read? What was terrible? Any thoughts on why superhero prose always seems to have a deconstructive element? (I have some ideas on that one, but I’m tired; maybe I’ll write on that another time.)

The mic is yours. Step up and share your findings on Alpha-Man’s secret identity with the class!

Two the hard way

7

Category : reading, superheroes

I got paid last week, and as is my wont I went to see the good fellows at All-Star Comics to drop some dinero on a few trades. Most of them are things to discuss another time – once the series is finished I will do a mega-post about how freaking great Locke & Key is – but two of them are tales of men in tights fighting bad guys, as per this month’s theme, and I’d like to quickly talk about them and why you should read them.

Exhibit A is the first collection of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil (which is just called Daredevil Vol 1, rather confusingly). Waid took home three Eisners this year, two for this series, and it’s easy to see why because this book is awesome. After years – hell, decades – of being a tormented, tortured character, Waid brings Daredevil back to his swashbuckling superhero roots, portraying Daredevil with a smile on his lips as he pits himself against four-colour villains and some of Marvel’s old-school villainous groups. It’s a major swerve, but it works because it’s grounded in the story, with Matt Murdock deliberately pushing away his sad past before it breaks him – a move that foreshadows consequences and problems ahead.

For all that the writing is strong – and it is, it’s some of Waid’s best – the artwork from Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin steals your attention away on every page. But again, this plays into the narrative, putting a major focus on Daredevil’s enhanced senses to communicate how he perceives the world, a world of soundscapes and textures and villains/adventures that draw upon Daredevil’s senses as well as his ninja skills. Both artists work wonders with open, energetic whites, snapshot frames and multiple panel, evoking artists like Mazzuchelli and Ditko while having their own unique take on things. It’s glorious, beautiful stuff with a deliberate lightness that never feels trivial.

Over at DC, we have Batman: The Court of Owls, the first volume of Scott Snyder’s side of the post-reboot Bat-verse. This collection (I got the HC, but the trade is due soonish) puts Bruce Wayne back into the title role as Gotham’s guardian, a role he’s comfortable and confident in, especially as he’s backed up by new gadgets and techniques. But his confidence begins to erode in hints that an old urban legend – the Court of Owls, Gotham’s secret rulers – are real and coming for him. Snyder has a horror writer’s temperament and imagination, which bleeds through in the tense, terrifying second half of this book, as all of Batman’s strength and courage mean nothing in the face of a more mysterious, more ruthless enemy that puts him through mental and physical hell, leading up to a ball-tearer cliffhanger.

Snyder is backed up by artist Greg Capullo, who’s come a long way since mimicking Todd McFarlane on Spawn. There’s a exaggerated cartoonishness to a lot of Capullo’s work, but it’s powerfully juxtaposed against brooding shadows, bloody action and moments of terrifying grotesquerie. There are multiple flashbacks, perceptual shifts and hallucinatory episodes in this story, and Capullo seamlessly shifts his style and storytelling to fit each time. If he has a flaw, it’s that his characters’ faces are a little too similar – it’s sometimes hard to tell Bruce Wayne from Dick Grayson when they’re talking – but his body shapes and language make up for it to provide a strong differentiation. Plus, his work in the second half is scary as hell.

These are two excellent superhero books that kick off ongoing directions and stories for two terrific characters. If I had to pick one over the other… well, damn me for a traitor and take away my Bat-card, but it would have to be Daredevil. The sheer energy and liveliness of this book, along with its intelligence and kinetic artwork, make it an absolute delight. Court of Owls is good, but at times the focus on atmosphere and suspense take away from the forward motion of the narrative; Snyder spends a bit too much time building up Gotham as a character in the first half and not enough on having Batman, well, do stuff. On top of that, Daredevil has something I’m really missing in modern superhero comics – a hero who spends his time actively looking for people in trouble and then helping them. Batman does a lot less of that, instead reacting to threats directed at him rather than protecting innocents. I like heroes who are heroic; the DC Universe is kind of lacking that at the moment.

But that said, I enjoyed the hell out of both books, and if you’re any kind of fan of either character, or of superheroes in general, you should definitely give them a read.

Legacy in blue

2

Category : reading, Uncategorized

Legacy.

It’s a concept that used to be one of the pillars of the DC Universe – that a mantle of heroic action would be passed from one character to another. The Flash and Green Lantern of World War II inspired the Flash and Green Lantern of the silver age, who were then replaced by the Flash and Green Lantern of the modern age, with the promise of future heroes assuming that title as well… it was a thematic mainstay that propelled dozens of characters and hundreds of stories.

Well, like most good things in the DCU, the theme of legacy was abandoned in the DC Reboot, in which superheroes have only been around for five years, there were no heroes in WWII (there’s a wonderful sentence to contemplate) and characters operate without foundations or any kind of respect for what has gone before. Which is a goddamn shame.

But I’m not here tonight to whinge about the DC Reboot – that comes later in the month. Instead, I want to talk about one of the last, best examples of the treatment of that theme from DC, which also happens to be a fantastic, funny, smart and action-packed comic book.

And that comic is Blue Beetle.

So first, some backstory. The original Blue Beetle was a Golden Age character who bounced through a few iterations and publishers. Eventually he was bought and revamped in the 1960s by Charlton Comics as Dan Garrett, an archaeologist who discovered a magical scarab amulet that gave him superpowers (strength, flight, energy blasts, similar generic things). When that version proved unpopular, Charlton didn’t reinvent him, they replaced him – Garret died and passed the scarab on to his former student, inventor Ted Kord. Kord became the new Blue Beetle, but a very different character; he couldn’t make the scarab work, so instead fought crime with gadgets, inventions and intelligence.

Fast forward about 15 years and DC Comics bought the rights to the Charlton stable of characters, where Garrett became a minor WWII superhero and Ted Kord the modern Blue Beetle – keeping the legacy concept going, but stretching out the ages between the characters to fit DC’s timeline. During the late 80s and early 90s Kord was a major DC character and a mainstay of the Justice League, but eventually faded from the limelight to become another perennial C-list character in the background of crossovers.

And then came 2005′s mega-event Infinite Crisis, during which Kord uncovered a conspiracy and was murdered – but not before leaving Garrett’s scarab with the wizard Shazam, who then lost it in an explosion. It fell to Earth in El Paso, Texas, and was found by a teenage called Jaime Reyes, who used it to help Batman defeat… okay, look, this is all a really long story that is often not very fun, so let’s just skip the details and move onto the comic, alright?

So teenage Jaime becomes the new Blue Beetle, as the scarab responds to him by forming into a set of high-tech armour covered in bizarre weapons and manned by an semi-incomprehensible telepathic AI. People start chasing him, he gets into trouble, he tries to find out what’s going on… all of this has the potential to be a decent setup for a decent, unremarkable comic series.

Except that Jaime used Google to find out about Ted Kord.

And except that Blue Beetle was written by John Rogers, scriptwriter, producer and TV showrunner for the show Leverage (which I still haven’t seen but I hear is well worth watching). In his first comics work (he went on to write Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve raved about before), Rogers stepped up to write like an experienced master of the form, creating a series packed with memorable, likeable characters, punchy stories and exciting revelations (none of which I’ll spoil here).

He was mentored for the first year by comics veteran Keith Giffen and accompanied by artist Cully Hamner, whose blocky, cartoony style I’ve always liked; his lines are blocky and dark but fun and open at the same time, and his design of the Beetle-armour is a terrific departure from the usual metal-and-geegaws style of super-battlesuits. After he left, new artist Rafael Albuquerque also bought a cartoony style, but one with a lighter, scratchier line, less bombastic and more expressive; it took me a little while to warm to it, but now I think Albuquerque is one of the best artists in comics, and Blue Beetle shows him constantly growing in skill.

But I’m not so much here to review Blue Beetle (here’s a review – it’s great) as to talk about the theme of legacy, which Rogers used as the spine of the series. As I said, Jaime read up on the previous Blue Beetle, trying to understand the connection to his scarab, and what he found inspired him – that Ted Kord, a man with no powers, could stand up for what was right and make a difference. Then he made contact with Dan Garrett’s granddaughter, who gave him more data on the scarab – and on Garrett’s time as a superhero, and the difference he made in the world. He realised that there is a legacy attached to the Blue Beetle, not just the scarab but the name itself, and he decided that he wanted to be part of that.

And a key element, I think, is that Jaime never meets either of the two previous Blue Beetles; they’re both dead before he finds the scarab. Nonetheless, he sees the value in what they did and what they strived for, he sees role models in them – he chooses to be part of their legacy, rather than having that legacy thrust upon him or just making his own way. And as Rogers’ overarching storyline continues, Jaime tries to embody the strength of Garrett and the intelligence of Kord, to take guidance from them while making his own way and finding his own place in the superhero community. To become something more than just a costume or a right cross, but a legend that can live on.

Rogers left the series after 24 issues (collected in the first 4 trades), having wrapped up his story. There was an attempt to keep the series going with writer Matthew Sturges, but it didn’t click – his issues weren’t terrible or anything, but they lacked the spark (and the cohesive thematic underpinnings) of Rogers’ – and the series ended after one last storyline. Blue Beetle continued to play a part in the DCU, joining the Teen Titans, hanging out with Booster Gold and appearing on The Brave and the Bold cartoon, and then the Reboot changed everything. There’s a new Blue Beetle series, but it’s heavy on the stereotypes and pointless fight scenes, light on the legacy (or any other kind of theme) and it’s all a bit sad and pointless now.

But there are four great trades (and one adequate one) of the original series, and they are a thing of joy, and they tell a great story with a great ending. And stories that end well are usually the best kind.

One of the powerful, story-generating tensions in the superhero genre is the clash between individualism and collectivism – it’s a genre where a single being can advance above all others and change the world but also seek to serve others and be part of something greater than themselves. The theme of legacy is one of the strongest ways to explore that tension and make a supers story more than just dudes in tights thumping each other. And Blue Beetle was a hell of a lot more than that.

You should read it. You should love it. It’s that good.