Adventures in Real Life: Do Writers Owe Their Readers?

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It’s a question that I see many a writer squabble about on blogs and in the comment sections across the wild expanses of the untamed internet. Does a writer owe anything to their readers? Must a writer compromise their pure artistic vision to appeal to the ever-changing tastes of the market? What the hell does that even mean? (Pro-tip: If you’re writing schlock genre fiction for a quick buck, please stop talking about your divine creative spark or whatever. Just accept what you do, bro. Be proud of that schlock.)

While I’ve attempted to figure this question out for myself, the apparent general consensus is that all writers are geniuses who owe nothing to their readers. Just as the brilliant painter owes nothing to the drooling public, nor the driven filmmaker to the unwashed film-going masses, writers must be allowed to bring their uncompromising vision of pure creative energy to the world. Or something. This is what I’ve been told on Facebook and Twitter, anyway. Nobody owes anybody anything, and we should all just be glad for the writers putting out stuff for us to read. Writing is a hard job, somebody has to do it, so readers shouldn’t feel entitled to have a say in the work itself. And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s an alright way to look at it. This is a business. I make the product, you buy the product, and hopefully everybody gets what they want in the process.

But, the older I get, and — let’s be real — the crankier I am, my response to that question is far more personal and complex. As a writer, I see what I do — writing stuff for people to read, be it a comic book review or a 100k novel — as an extension of the morality I adhere to in my daily life. It’s like an oath to do what I can to make the world suck less than it already does. Which, when I hear myself say that, makes me sound as much of a wind-bag as the self-described geniuses I spend most of my time lampooning on the internet. (#Genericwritertweets?) Before you accuse me of donning my Social Justice Warrior armor and shield, and taking to the internet to rain on your collective parade, think about it like this.

The Writer’s Oath (stolen from Hippocrates, for reasons)

I swear by Warren Ellis the mad asshole who made me want to write as a kid, and William Gibson who was rad as hell, likewise Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, and call all the writers to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.

I will reverence the cool guys who taught me the art. Equally with my peers on the intertubes, will I allow them things necessary for their support, and will retweet their sale links. I will be aware of my privileges, and check them frequently, before I make an ass of myself. With regard to writing for my audience, I will devise and produce for them the best work that I can, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care not to regurgitate harmful or toxic stereotypes. I will walk a mile in the shoes of my audience, so that I may better understand their points of view and the hardships they face. If I expect their money, they expect a product worthy of it, and this transaction must be based upon respect.

Never shall any publisher’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poisonous, harmful, or abusive viewpoints to anyone, even if it is to make a quick buck; neither will I counsel any writer to do so. Not even in the service of plot, so don’t give me that shit. Moreover, I will do what I can, whenever I can, to advance the presence of women, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and all other marginalized people in the media that I produce. I will do what I can to elevate their voices and stories above than my own, and try to keep my white middle class American feels out of the conversation.

If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, feel free to kick my ass to the curb!

The typical response I receive from other writers is “I don’t write stories like that,” or “I don’t need to get bogged down in politics or PC stuff.” This sounds like good reasoning on the face of it; after all, everybody has their own agenda, and writes with different intentions. But is writing about perspectives outside of your own just a matter of politics? Shouldn’t a writer be self-aware enough to examine their own place in the world, and to consider writing about characters that don’t look or think like they do? If your high concept sci-fi epic is white as Miracle Whip, you’re hardly a visionary. If your gritty supernatural horror novel just spits out the same old sexist or transphobic cliches, that’s not ‘edgy’ or ‘rebellious’ – it’s just falling in step with the status quo.

In the end, I can’t tell anybody how to write. I can’t tell you how to feel about your audience, either. I can only do what I do, for the reasons that I do it. For me, that means do no harm. Take that as you will.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #11

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Christmas came a month late for Captain Marvel in this holiday-themed two-parter, but the wait was worth it. Carol’s back in New York City with mutant rock star Lila Cheney, but her vacation is cut short when antagonists Grace Valentine and June Convington hatch an elaborate kidnapping scheme. DeConnick delivers a solid holiday romp while Lopez breaks out some of his best artwork in the series to date, making for a fun read Carol fans are sure to enjoy. (Also, don’t let the dramatic cover fool you – Kit is fine, no worries there.)

While Captain Marvel has suffered a bit in recent issues, with meandering plotlines and gimmicky filler, the conclusion of A Christmas Carol brings back some of the best aspects of this title. Carol’s seemingly never-ending journey to prove herself comes at a cost as she comes home to be with Tracy, whose health has taken a turn for the worse. With a panicked Lila dashing around getting her last-minute shopping done, Carol sets aside spacefaring business as the Avengers’ intergalactic representative, only to have her quiet holiday foiled by Valentine and Covington.

The ensuing plot involves a kidnapped Santa Claus and genetic experimentation, as Carol’s self-appointed nemeses conspire to harvest her powers. This gimmick barely holds together but for the strength of DeConnick’s dialogue, characterization, and quirky sense of humor. As silly as it is, it works for a holiday issue, with Captain Marvel saving the day in time for the heartfelt conclusion. DeConnick’s narrative language, especially in the opening splash page, is particularly warm and descriptive, and that establishing narration was just lovely to read.

This issue features some of Lopez’s best work to date. His work on this series has been consistent, but the page designs in Captain Marvel #11 are noteworthy on their own merits. The panel compositions are stronger than they have been in recent memory, creating richly detailed street scenes and visually interesting transitions that move the story along at an engaging pace. For another nice change of pace colorist Lee Loughridge dips into cooler palettes this time around, using predominately blue and purple tones. This  shift provides balance to the earthy beige color schemes he’s been primarily employing since he came onboard, and breaks up some of the bland visual monotony the book has fallen into with recent issues.

Warm, funny, and visually pleasing, Captain Marvel #11 is just a good issue all the way around.

Comic Book Review: Storm #7

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Storm’s troubles are just getting started when she finds herself in FBI custody, accused of attacking a plane and all its passengers. From New York to Mexico, Santo Marco to Kenya, Ororo’s friends and fellow X-Men look on as the ensuing media firestorm makes her a wanted terrorist. After a daring jail break, Ororo must clear her name and expose the political conspiracy behind Davis Harmon and Eaglestar International, even if it costs her.

Pak delivers a solid script in Storm #7, pitting Ororo against a corrupt US senator and the full force of the FBI. It’s always nice to see emphasis placed on Ororo’s skills as a thief, which Pak does well. Physically engaging and evading the armed guards rather than relying solely on her powers, Ororo proves herself a competent hero in more ways than one, even with her busted ankle.

The dialogue gets a bit thin in the closing confrontation at the senator’s house, but overall Pak uses Ororo’s supporting cast well. Call-backs to characters like Forge and Marisol watching the drama unfold helps to strengthen Ororo’s support network, as well as her role as a leader. Readers want a hero they can root for, and Pak certainly delivers that.

Artist Barrionuevo does a decent job, especially in the opening pages. The way he renders Rachel’s telepathic projection is both inventive and amusing, expressing the discussion through  the use of tiny X-Men running around on Ororo’s unconscious body. Unfortunately the rest of the issue is visually disappointing.

Panel transitions during the jail break sequence break down as the action becomes somewhat muddled and confusing. The explosive show of power at the senator’s house suffers from awkward facial expressions and uninteresting panel designs, and the climax falls flat as a result. Redmond’s color palettes are effective, but as the artwork becomes increasingly less engaging, even her efforts lose their punch.

While certainly a rousing premise, the uninteresting artwork leaves the whole issue a bit flat. Solid scripting on Pak’s end, but if the interior pages lived up to Stephanie Hans’ attractive cover artwork it would be an entirely different story. A decent issue, but not a memorable one.

Comic Book Review: The Wicked + The Divine #6

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After the death of Lucifer, life has carried on in the midst of the ensuing media spectacle as gods become a topic of intense debate. Laura’s life continues on as anti-climactically as it always has, with the added complication of Luci’s lingering powers. As the next six-part arc kicks off, Gillen and McKelvie introduce us to new characters, new dynamics, and new questions in this clever supernatural mystery and pop culture dissertation.

At her lowest point, when she’s most alone in a world of gods and divas, Laura is approached by Inanna. Inanna, outlandishly dressed and a bit socially awkward, was a fan of the pantheon just like Laura before he was transformed into his god persona by Ananke. With his insight into the internal goings-on of the pantheon, he reaches out to help Laura find out who framed Luci. It seems that the pantheon may be using fans to do their earthly dirty work, and with Inanna at her side, Laura decides to come out of her self-imposed social media hiatus to infiltrate pantheon fandom. Her vast Twitter audience, which exploded after her recent interviews and media appearances, eagerly awaits her return, promising to catapult her into the fandom spotlight.

McKelvie’s breakdown of Laura’s life post-Luci tells sets the tone of this issue, and this arc, perfectly. His page designs and panel constructions utilize white space and expansive gutters in a way that frame Laura’s sense of emptiness and loss. These first few pages are some of the best in the book, especially the labeled diagrams of Laura’s bedroom, serving as the sad inventory of her life. Even without Gillen’s scripting to guide the reader, McKelvie’s figures and splash pages tell the story with affective precision, and Wilson’s deep, moody palettes complement that well.

This by no means is a slight to Gillen. His invention of fandom espionage deepens the plot considerably, and the introduction of Inanna opens the door to further intrigue. Inanna as a character fits well into this world, with his effusive personality, gaudy outfits, and plunging necklines. It will be interesting to see how he and this grimmer, somewhat more jaded Laura continue to play off each other.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #10

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Picking up after last issue’s closing plot twist, Kamala discovers the Inventor’s heinous plans in Ms. Marvel #10. So far this series has done a great job of packaging Kamala’s adventures in ways that appeal to today’s diverse readership, and this issue is no exception. Using a compelling contemporary framework to approach the overt silliness of giant mechs and talking birds, Wilson and Alphona successfully ground this arc’s super-science hijinks in something meaningful that many younger readers (this reviewer included) can certainly relate to.

As Kamala learns, the teens volunteered to become the human batteries for Inventor’s machines in order to seek alternative power sources for a rapidly expanding world. The teens believe they are little more than parasites, an “extra generation” using dwindling resources and contributing little in turn. In sacrificing themselves, they aim to leave a positive mark on the future that adults already blame them for ruining with smartphones and student loan debt. Noble intentions aside, the Inventor shows his true colors when he attacks Kamala and abducts Lockjaw. In turn Kamala rallies the other teenagers in a cowboy speech that even Captain America would be proud of, and leads the teens against the Inventor to set up for the arc’s conclusion.

While admittedly a little heavy-handed in its execution, the theme of youth standing up against a culture that devalues (and often demonizes) them is extremely relevant in today’s media. The pervasive narrative that the lazy, selfish millennials have led the contemporary western world to its doom is all but inescapable these days. To see young people so beaten down by their parents’ generation that they consider their own lives as disposal rings very true to most post-grads on the street, and for Kamala to take a stand against that narrative is uplifting. It also further solidifies her role as today’s every-woman hero, speaking to (and for) a widening audience of comic book readers from all walks of life.

Once again Wilson and Alphona bring their A-game. Wilson’s scripting is strong and Alphona’s pencils are as beautiful and energetic as ever, wonderfully complemented by Herring’s palettes. Another compelling, visually engaging issue from this stellar creative team.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #10

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Carol Danvers returns in her 100th solo issue for an oversized anniversary special just in time for Christmas. The first chapter of a holiday-themed two-parter, Captain Marvel #10 catches up with Carol’s friends back home on Earth through a series of letters picked up by world-hopping rock star Lila Cheney. Shifting gears from the series recent spacefaring adventure theme, this issue slows down to show that behind every great hero is a strong supporting cast of family and friends.

Through messages from Kit, Jessica Drew, Jim Rhodes, and Wendy Kawasaki, Carol gets a glimpse into the adventures her fellow heroes are having without her. Self-proclaimed Captain Marvel villain Grace Valentine returns to antagonize the city once more, hatching yet another cartoonishly mustache-twirling evil plot. From these alternating perspectives the reader is treated to the old-fashioned heroic adventure story that DeConnick delivers so well, even if the set-up is pretty corny. The issue is peppered with endearing personal moments and memories, especially in Jessica and Jim’s respective storylines, which serve to ground all of Carol’s friendships in ways designed to tug at the heart strings. Every character is given a moment to shine on their individual merit, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Carol’s support network in action against a villain.

Artists Lopez, Takara and Braga lend their respective styles to each section of the story, splitting the workload with a great deal of success. While their styles do vary in weight and character of line, the transition from one artist to the next is pretty much seamless, and all of their individual pages keep the story moving at a good clip despite that initial visual discrepancy. Colorists Loughridge and Filardi also mitigate some of this inconsistency through uniform palette choices that make for a visually cohesive reading experience. Soft blues, muted beiges, and warm orange tones create an inviting, almost pastel world for the reader to follow, affecting the kind of dreamy reconstruction that comes of reading a story secondhand.

It has a predictable villain and a paint-by-numbers plot, but the endearing nature of the story and its execution is what makes this issue a highly enjoyable read. Captain Marvel #10 is obvious fan service, but with a sense of heart at its core, it perfectly encapsulates Carol’s enduring popularity in recent years. This title has made a name for itself by serving standard cape book comfort food with a strong emotional foundation that dictates the stories being told, and it makes sense that the 100th issue special is no different. This issue is must-read for Carol fans.

Comic Book Review: Sex Criminals #9

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As Fraction and Zdarsky’s clockwork universe of time-stopping sexual exploration broadens its scope, we’re introduced to Ana Kincaid. Better known as Jon’s pubescent sexual idol Jazmine St. Cocaine, Sex Criminals #9 tells of how a small town girl rose to porn star fame and discovered her otherworldly sexual abilities. While the set-up is certainly familiar, this is the story of Ana’s journey from porn to academia, subverting the blame-and-shame tropes surrounding sex work with Ana’s fresh perspective.

With Jon and Suzie reconciling their complicated relationship status, Jon begins looking into the others on the Sex Police’s radar. This is how we meet Ana. Born into typical small-town mediocrity as Rae Anne Toots, throughout high school Ana balances her academic success with the thrills of her hard-partying lifestyle. High school’s cheap thrills wane as she looks forward to college, but Ana’s attempts to begin her life are thwarted when her father refuses to help her pay for school. On her own, Ana struggles to pay for her education with a minimum wage job before an excursion to a strip club clues her into the serious cash-making potential of stripping. She leaves McDonald’s behind to become a stripper, becoming addicted to the sense of sexual freedom and power that comes with it. She also develops an addiction to cocaine, and soon college is left to the backburner.

When the excitement of her current work fades, Ana goes on to modeling and later porn to recapture the rush. In a sequence that lovingly parodies Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and The Divine, Ana’s first foray into porn unlocks her secret power when she has her first real orgasm. Having suffered a childhood injury that left her unable to feel sexual pleasure, this transcendent time-stopping experience becomes Ana’s new addiction, chasing it throughout her career. With time and sobriety, Ana’s fascination with her experiences in the Quiet/Cumworld become an academic preoccupation, and eventually she leaves porn to become a horology professor. This is how Jon and Suzie meet her in the closing pages of the issue, in her office at the local college, studying how sex and time coincide.

Fraction’s voice for Ana is one of the strongest in the series so far, a no-nonsense perspective on sex and addiction that breathes some new life into this series. While Jon and Suzie are competent narrators, their respective emotional baggage views the Quiet/Cumworld through a melancholy lens that, at times, feels a little repetitive. Ana’s clinical understanding of their powers helps to shed some light on the larger world that these characters operate in, and reorients Jon and Suzie’s story in a more proactive direction. The nuanced treatment of her story is engaging, and delivers one of the best stand-alone issues in the book.

As ever Zdarsky’s rendering of her scenes is both humorous and heartfelt, and employs some meaningful imagery throughout. The appearance of Gillen as the director of Ana’s first porn is an amusing touch, as is the eight-panel splash of Ana’s career portfolio, true to the title’s irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone. He also manages to make Ana’s treks the Quiet/Cumworld specific and unique to her story, despite the recycled color and texture overlays that serve as visual shorthand, distancing her from Jon and Suzie’s shared experiences.

Short Story: Molly’s Entropy, Speculative Fiction by Magen Cubed

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I knew my memories could no longer be trusted when the old brownstone on Morning Avenue disappeared. It was a morning in October when it vanished, a townhouse with green shutters and wide flower-boxes. I passed a row of them each day on my way to the office, cups of designer coffee in hand and my scarf tucked under my coat. The brownstone had left a void in its place, a soft white outline where it had once stood before being snatched up from the foundation, every shingle and tile evaporating with it. Something shined from inside the silhouette, a gentle light, maybe radiation, pouring into the street and between the shrubs and fences of the neighboring houses.

Police put a barricade of yellow tape and plastic cones around the brownstone, uniformed officers posted outside in shifts. Each morning people walked past them without looking, and each morning I stared into the cavity and waited for something to happen. For someone to step out or something to fall inside of it, doors to open or dimensions to crumble. Nothing seemed to change. I stopped one day on my way to work to ask the officer there what was going on. The man looked too young for his black uniform, with big brown eyes and a dopey half-smile. He said it was to keep out the trespassers and school children that wandered too close, taking cell phone pictures or throwing rocks into the white space. He never explained where the brownstone had gone, like it had never been there at all. I couldn’t say that it had either, with nothing to point to but an outline, so I thanked him for his time instead.

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Fleshtrap: One Year Later

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So as of this week, my novel Fleshtrap has been out for a year. You know how the story goes: Casey Way has been haunted by visions of his dead pedophile father for the last twenty years, tormented by hazy recollections of his father’s murder at the hands of his stepmother. The trauma has left Casey burdened with guilt, which has manifested in debilitating insomnia and violent hallucinations. As the anniversary of his father’s murder approaches, his step-sister Mariska takes him back to the scene of the crime: their childhood home, to confront their past and finally get some closure. Instead, something follows Casey back out into the world, something ugly, violent, familiar.

Blah blah blah, that old chestnut.

The book I wrote between 2010 and 2011 in a fit of quarter-life nihilism has been out in the wild for a whole year now. Casey Way has been left to his own devices as I started work on four other books, finishing one and abandoning another along the way. He’s grown up and left me, living outside of me and the stories I’d planned for him, leaving this nostalgic little hole in my gut that I occasionally wax philosophically about if the mood strikes me.

And looking at it now, at how much has changed in that year, it’s a little strange.

I met a lot of people because of this book. In May I went to Texas Frightmare Weekend with the rest of the guys from Post Mortem Press. I’ve been on podcasts to talk about the book and had an interview on BookieMonster.com. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with people who enjoyed the book; I’ve talked a lot about the nature of abuse, the duality of human nature, and how people can survive despite the weight of family history bearing down on them. It’s been rewarding, and in a lot of ways, it’s been cathartic to see something that I wrote at such a low point could resonate with people in ways I hadn’t even considered. To see that people could get something out of Casey’s story has made the blood, the sweat, and the tears — all the fear and loathing and panic that went into the book itself — worth it.

But this was my first book. Your first book is meant to be your training wheels. It’s the best you could do at the time that you did it, but it’s by no means all you have to give. I wrote it when I was 24 and 25; I’m now 28, going on 29. When I look at Fleshtrap, I see so little of myself in it now that it’s a bit strange to think even about. For a while I considered turning Casey’s story into a trilogy of books to explore similar themes and ideas, using Casey as kind of an unwitting bloodhound for the psychic scars left in the world. Think John Constantine, but with less swagger and attention to detail. I even started the second book last summer, just to see if I still had a horror book in me. After a year of seeing Fleshtrap out in the world, however, I figured out that I just didn’t. I don’t think I want to go back to that world. I don’t even think I could, really; Fleshtrap is so far removed from where I am now and the stories I want to tell. And that’s okay.

Fleshtrap was the book I wanted to write when I was 24 and 25. It was the exorcism I needed. Now that I’m older, Casey can be put to bed. It’s better this way, I think, for me and Casey both. In the time since I sent him out into the world, I finished the first book of my six-book superhero fiction series The Crashers. I’m currently shopping for a publisher while I work on the sequel, The Crashers, Volume Two: Koreatown. These are the stories I’m interested in, the characters that I care about putting out into the world. And if you liked Fleshtrap, I hope you’ll be back to check those books out, too.

Comic Book Review: C.O.W.L. #6

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After a grim finale to its inaugural arc, C.O.W.L. begins its latest storyline in #6, Raven’s First Flight. Higgins and Siegel shift gears to delve into the backstory of C.O.W.L. Chief Geoffrey Warner, the Grey Raven, in this faithful reproduction of his imagined comic book exploits. Artist Charretier brings Warner’s early life to the page with all the strong jaws, fisticuffs and theatrical villainy of 1960s adventure comics, wonderfully developed by Reis’ flat primary colors and halftone textures. This issue serves an artifact of a comic book from a comic book world, posing questions about the nature of its own mythology and format.

According to his heroic origin story, graciously licensed to Image Comics in the spring of 1962, Warner begins life as the hopeful son of a decorated Chicago cop. However, his dreams of following his father into the police force are dashed when he finds out that his father is on Liam Stone’s payroll. Disillusioned, Warner turns to life as a professional boxer, earning him fame as a rising young star. His speed and determination make him a local sensation, but the wounds of his father’s betrayal are reopened when his manager asks him to throw his championship match. Disgusted, he quits.

Spurred by his desire to change his city for the better, Warner then becomes a private detective, pursuing cases that the crooked CPD won’t touch. This still isn’t enough for Warner, who is sickened by the sleaze and exploitation around him. When a series of robberies results in the death of cop, he seizes the opportunity to take a stand and becomes the Grey Raven. The case brings him face to face with the Robber, the city’s first masked villain, and in a daring takedown Warner learns that his father is the Robber’s getaway driver. With the Robber defeated and his father arrested, the Grey Raven becomes the hero that Chicago desperately needs.

Warner’s rise is neatly packaged in this well-crafted piece of propaganda, contrasting the virtuousness of those who don masks to fight crime against the corruption that had infested Chicago. Seeing what lengths Warner is willing to go to get his way, his righteousness and incorruptibility here is almost comical and sad in equal measures, but for different reasons. Is there some truth to the story? Was he ever this noble, or is this simply how Warner wants his city to remember him? To see a man with such good intentions get in bed with the mob he’s fought so hard against sheds an intriguing light on the moral complexities of this world and its cast, and Higgins and Siegel pull it off well.

Bringing this issue together is its production design. Its endearingly vintage aesthetic, complete with smudged and stained pages, is really brought home by the pulpy house ads scattered throughout the book. Charretier’s pages appropriately ape the cheap, quickly-produced action books of the 60s, with their flattened spaces and simple panel construction. Reis’s coloring use of bright, bold palettes is effective throughout, although I wish some of the stains in the margins could have been incorporated into the panels themselves more prominently.

Overall, C.O.W.L. #6 is a clever issue that uses the aesthetics and storytelling conventions of its setting to deliver is visually fun and thoughtful reading experience.