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.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #8

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After a somewhat lackluster two-parter, Blackman and Del Mundo return to breathe some excitement into the series with Elektra #8. Their imaginative collaboration once again carries this title in an issue rife with magic and mayhem, brought to the page by the strength of Blackman’s narrative voice and Del Mundo’s gorgeous artwork. While this series suffered from a loss of momentum in recent issues, this book is definitely back.

Hot on Bulleye’s trail, Elektra finds herself at Mercury Drop, a highly-guarded S.H.I.E.L.D. detainment facility. There she fights her way through jetpack-sporting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to take Bullseye’s comatose body, only to find herself squaring off against Maria Hill. Maria gives Elektra the chance to leave without further conflict, out of respect to the assassin’s relationship with Nick Fury. However, as Elektra refuses, their confrontation is cut short by a surprise attack by the Hand. With Bullseye caught in the middle, Maria and Elektra put their differences aside to fight back against the Hand, concluding in a stunning magically-infused battle complete with dragons and mech suits.

Del Mundo’s artwork once again makes this book. His fight scenes are intricate and beautiful, his line work refined and delicate. The soft, painterly development of space and form makes for engaging reading as man and machine clash in these highly-energized panels. There’s simply so much energy in every exaggerated gesture, extended finger and swirling strand of wayward hair, creating a sense of vibrancy from the first page to the last. Completed by the rhythm of Blackman’s prose-like scripting, Elektra #8 is a beautiful issue and a highly enjoyable to read.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #9

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Moon Knight #9 brings Spector to his doctor’s doorstep once again, this time to peer behind her cool façade and work out her motivations. Her contract on General Lor and the fallout of his last mission have left Moon Knight with a lot of unanswered questions as to his dear doctor’s extracurricular activities. Under shared hypnosis, the doctor guides Spector to his memories of Egypt and Khonshu, before delving into her own memories. There Spector watches General Lor’s military occupation of the micronation Akima, his doctor’s childhood home, as soldiers slaughter her village and kill her family.

What begins as a seemingly routine session exploring Spector’s various identities takes a sharp turn as Spector becomes a part of his doctor’s violent past. Within this shared dream-space she walks him through the horrors committed by men like Lor all over the world, men that she intends to wipe out by any means necessary. Smallwood brings these scenes to the page in tight, claustrophobic panels, overlapping time and space through alternating perspectives. The action is expertly paced and visually compelling throughout, utilizing negative space to emphasize the abruptness of Moon Knight’s violence. As ever Bellaire’s bold, nearly monochromatic palettes are on point.

Spector, despite his own charge as the protector of night travelers, refuses to help the doctor get revenge. Wood poses some interesting questions about the nature of vigilantism here as Spector argues against her murderous campaign. When the only thing that separates his mission from hers is his own set of moral standards, who is he to stop her? All of Spector’s righteous indignation aside, however, the doctor quickly turns the tables on him and becomes the vessel of Khonshu. Waking in her office, Spector finds himself alone, with no other personalities or identities living alongside him, with a bomb under the desk.

With its intriguing premise and cliffhanger ending, Moon Knight #9 is an engaging read from start to finish.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #12

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Natasha’s past comes back to haunt her in a very public way in Black Widow #12. As Anderson Cooper exposes Natasha’s recent activity, both as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative and contracted agent, the rest of the superhero and espionage communities at large must scramble to deal with the backlash. While “celebrity guest appearances” such as the one made here tend to be campy, the use of the news anchor serves to ground the story in a semblance of realism and considerably raises the stakes for Natasha.

In Somalia, Natasha is far removed from the troubles brewing back home during a routine mission with the Howling Commandos. After the recent dilemma with Chaos she welcomes the change of pace, even as the Avengers confer with Maria Hill to try to minimize the damage of the report. Every mission since the title began is put under the microscope, her actions and motivations analyzed and debated as eye witnesses give accounts of her very public encounters with assorted antagonists.

The visual transition from screen to screen, room to room as Natasha’s friends and compatriots across the city watch the news is expertly managed by Noto, using the tension of the script to its potential. Contrasting Natasha’s breezy, almost naïve narration during her Somalia mission against the grimness befalling her concerned friends as they watch AC 360 is a clever move on Edmondson’s part. In the end, however, Isaiah is the one who must pay the price for Natasha’s transgressions as he is shot in her apartment, seemingly killed by an unknown gunman as Natasha’s taxi pulls up outside.

In the age of whistleblowers and the demand for government transparency, Black Widow #12 strikes a timely chord. Such an investigation into the scope of Natasha’s missions as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and member of the Avengers calls both of their authorities into question; considering what these entities have recently been up to in Avengers and New Avengers respectively, the public is surely watching people like Natasha quite closely. Edmondson also brings up an interesting point of contrast, whether implicitly or not, between how the public (and the reader) views operatives like Black Widow or Hawkeye and “heroes” like Iron Man or Captain America.

While Natasha’s reputation as an assassin is well-known, all of them have done questionable, sometimes even treacherous things in the name of larger causes. The only thing that really separates them is the fact that people like Natasha primarily use violence as their means, whereas people like Tony Stark are largely Machiavellian, scheming and manipulating people and scenarios to achieve their desired outcomes. Of course the Avengers have been scrutinized by both the public and the government in various storylines, but it still raises the interesting question of who bears the guilt when secrets such as these come to light.

With strong scripting and artwork from start to finish, Black Widow #12 is another solid read from this creative team.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #9

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In general, I have very negative reactions to pop stars and singers in cape books. The bombastic, cartoonish depictions of musicians who drop into a scene to belt out a song while superheroes gush in the margins just doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how well-intentioned. Planet-hopping rock stars aside, this done-in-one romp, titled Lila Cheney’s Fantabulous Technicolor Rock Opera, tries to add some fun to Carol’s recent intergalactic adventures with a detour to an alien planet. Unfortunately, this breezy filler issue falls a bit flat in its execution.

Carol and Tic are on their way to their next undertaking when Lila Cheney teleports onto their ship, summoned by the sound of her own music playing. Lila quickly recounts her childhood adventures as an interplanetary traveler before transporting the three of them to an alien world. We learn that, during one of her youthful exploits, she became betrothed to Prince Yan of the Aladna Court, a group of flamboyant humanoids who speak only in rhyme, to establish an alliance with Earth. As an adult, however, Lila has no interest in becoming queen of the court, even if it leaves Yan’s legitimacy as heir to the throne in jeopardy.

Carol, roped into posing as Lila’s mother, tries to stop the wedding through mediation. Before she can save Lila from an unwanted marriage, a rival suitor named Marlo bursts in and demands to battle Lila for Yan’s hand. Carol steps in to fight on Lila’s behalf and easily trounces Marlo, but the king and queen still demand their son to take a wife. Tic offers to marry Yan to fulfill his royal duties and assure his ascension, so long as she remains free to travel with Carol. All’s well that ends well, until Lila gives Carol a letter “from a friend,” whose mysterious contents shock Carol in the closing panel.

To its credit, this issue does have some endearing elements. Allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Ziggy Stardust-esque costuming throughout bring a sense of fun and whimsy to the story. Furthermore, the gender role reversal that facilitates Prince Yan being married off in a society that privileges women in courtship is an interesting one. As ever DeConnick’s Carol is fun to read, and the respective contributions of artist Lopez and colorist Loughridge help to deliver another solid graphic narrative.

However, the rhyming dialogue convention quickly becomes grating to read as it persists throughout the issue. Such a device can be humorous in small doses, and in abundance, begins to read too much like a children’s book. The plot itself is decent enough but its execution is somewhat tedious, relying heavily on gimmicks and quirky alien customs to drive the story along while Carol awkwardly tries to navigate these circumstances. It’s jaunty, yes, but not memorable.

Overall, Captain Marvel #9 isn’t a terrible issue, but it certainly isn’t the best. It also isn’t my favorite kind of story. While I wouldn’t recommend this issue to readers outside of the Carol Corp., it is a lighthearted and silly adventure that some Carol fans are sure to enjoy.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #8

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Elektra’s mission to protect Cape Crow brings her up against a horde of enhanced assassins in Elektra #7, the conclusion of the Double Tap storyline from Blackman and Sanchez. Serving a segue between arcs, this two-parter offers some solid action sequences as Elektra battles her way through the streets of New Orleans to stop the Guild. While not as strong as the title’s inaugural arc, Blackman and Sanchez deliver an interesting two-part adventure, with help from the muted palettes of colorist Esther Sanz and the impeccable lettering of Clayton Cowles.

As Matchmaker lays dying, Elektra squares off with Lady Bullseye in her new intangible state. The killer’s ghostly new enhancements allow Elektra to inhale her smoke-like form, wounding Lady Bullseye long enough to strike. With the immediate threat disposed of, Elektra has little time to mourn Matchmaker’s death, donning Cape Crow’s life-saving armor and forcing Sidewinder to take her to the Guild. They step through the rift onto the streets of New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras. Immediately Elektra’s recent Guild antagonists leap out to ambush her, their bodies augmented by the same implants and experimentation as Lady Bullseye.

Had their previous encounters been fully explored as opposed to recapped in narration, this final encounter would have carried more weight. Instead, this seemingly dramatic clash, while certainly well-paced and vivid in its execution, falls a bit flat. After thrashing her enemies in the ensuing fight, Elektra tracks down the scientists responsible and kills them, leaving no one left to give her the whereabouts of the Guild. Sidewinder tells her that Bullseye, locked in a catatonic state and currently in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, knows where to find them. She spares her life and returns to Cape Crow and Kento, seeing them off as she prepares to go after the Guild alone.

The real highlight of this issue is the Elektra/Lady Bullseye fight, its tone set by Sanchez’s hauntingly beautiful opening triptych. Lady Bullseye’s gaseous form loops and curls in full, billowing lines, detailed by fine pencil strokes and heavy splatter. Blackman’s timeless, almost otherworldly aesthetic for this title is further developed in Elektra’s jaunt across New Orleans. The Mardi Gras that Elektra encounters is far tamer affair than it has been in recent decades, a decidedly more conservative event with traditional dress and costumes. It appears to be set in another time altogether, raising intriguing questions about when this story takes place, and giving nothing away. This lingering sense of mystery continues to serve Elektra well, making for another enjoyable and visually engaging issue.

Comic Book Review: Funrama #2

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After a fun and cheeky first issue, Ryan Kelly’s irreverent superhero romp Funrama continues in its second installment. Raccoon, follows the titular hero, a teenager named Rachel who fights crime under the cover of night, so called for her dramatic eye make-up. Kelly switches gears in this issue, focusing more on Rachel’s personal drama as a high school senior slash superhero, to open up to his broader world of heroes and villains. But because this is Funrama, it’s not your usual cape book.

The child of two powered criminals who raised as a circus performer, Rachel’s obligatory superhero backstory is convoluted and over-the-top. Born with an intense sensitivity to light that gives her superhuman night vision, Rachel uses black eye make-up to absorb the harmful effects of daylight, applied like a domino mask for the sake of her nighttime adventures. She’s joined by her best friends and sidekicks Flora, who communicates with plants, and Freakshow, a shapeshifting apparition, who deliver much of the humor in this issue. Together they help Rachel on her quest to navigate the drudgery of high school by day and atone for the crimes of her bank-robbing parents by night, one costumed villain at a time.

Just trying to graduate in one piece, Rachel’s world is shaken by the appearance of the super-fast Jaguar. Appropriately dark and mysterious, Jaguar means to recruit her to his army to save Funrama from evil forces. There’s a war coming for this island and it’s up to metahumans like them to restore the balance of power. It’s only when her parents arrive from the portal to take her back to Funrama, the source of all these powered humans and their hijinks, that Rachel returns to help.

With its tongue-in-cheek script and engaging graphic narrative, never sacrificing clean design and visual clarity for the sake of action or gags, Funrama #2 is a fun issue that builds on the foundations of the first. Rachel is a familiar angsty teen hero with some interesting twists in her backstory and a great supporting cast to flesh her out. Visually similar to well-known edgy female characters like Kick-Ass’s Hit-Girl and her ilk, she’s a fun character that uses tropes in clever ways. Her origins are so needlessly melodramatic, complete with relatives who seemingly fall into villainy with no real justification, as to sometimes become a bit jumbled. The book breezes through her exposition between jokes and action sequences without pausing to address these instances, either, touching on every cliché it possibly can as though going down a checklist and seemingly aware of this as it happens.

In any other series I would be critical of such an execution, with so much silliness going on at once, but Kelly’s use of these tropes speaks to an understanding and love of the genre he’s poking fun at. Funrama is satirical without being jaded, boasting a mischievous sense of humor that, while overtly silly, comes across more far deferential than puerile. It comes from a loving place, and I think that’s what makes this book so pleasing to read. The book wears its references and allusions on its sleeve and uses them in enjoyable ways, celebrating them as well as making light of their absurdity. And damned if that doesn’t make for a fun book.

Comic Book Review: The Wicked + The Divine #5

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Lucifer’s jailbreak has dire consequences in The Wicked + The Divine #5, as her coffee run turns into a mile-long trail of fire and destruction. The pantheon has washed its hand of her and Luci finds herself alone once again. Gillen and McKelvie make an appealing case for Luci in this issue, appropriately titled Sympathy, with only Laura on her side as she resigns herself to her role in the larger story of gods and miracles.

As Laura helplessly watches from the sidelines, the city catches fire. Cassie is little help, still holding a grudge over Luci’s previous disrespect, and Amaratsu’s attempts to reason with Luci fail. Soon the rest of the pantheon arrive to stop Luci as her story as the rebel comes to a familiar climax. The ensuing battle is a bloody one as Baal and Sakhmet pound Luci into the pavement, but Luci doesn’t back down, giving them a brawl worth going out in. Out of time, Laura calls on Morrigan for help, and, with all the visual panache we expect from McKelvie, together they carry Luci away to safety.

In a final moment of redemption, Luci tries to make amends for the people that she’s hurt. However, she expects no sympathy in turn. As she and Laura leave to hide out with Morrigan to plot their next move, Ananke appears to kill Luci in front of Laura, the pantheon, and Cassie’s film crew. This very public killing results in a media circus surrounding the pantheon that drives a traumatized Laura back home. Faced with her disturbing moment of fame, Laura is numb. She reaches for Luci’s pack of cigarettes, given to Laura just before her death. With a flick of her finger, the cigarette lights, the tip sharing the same red glow as her own eyes. The issue, and this arc, ends in two of the simplest yet most compelling pages I’ve seen from McKelvie so far.

It pretty much goes without saying that this may be McKelvie’s strongest issue. Every page, every panel is so spot-on, carrying this freight rain of a story to its violent and painful conclusion. His figures, which are all ridiculously attractive and sometimes repetitive, convey a wealth of emotional range in this issue that brings their characterizations and their designs together cohesively. Wilson’s color and texture work enlivens these spaces with a frenetic energy that matches the pace of the story, and his efforts are absolutely stunning from start to finish. The fight sequence between Luci, Baal and Sakhmet is the visual highlight of the issue, using contrasting purples to make the oranges and reds of lapping flames and action effects truly pop.

Gillen’s scripting is air-tight here as well, giving Luci a proper send-off that is both enthralling and tragically in-character for his version of Lucifer. Laura’s narrative tone is nothing short of wrenching as she watches this drama play out, made painfully aware of her own role in such celestial machinations as she goes from witness to something more. The tension is palpable, and while the conclusion raises more questions than it answers, The Wicked + The Divine #5 provides an exciting and highly satisfying end to this series’ inaugural arc. This is a highly enjoyable issue from an amazing creative team.

Comic Book Review: Funrama #1

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If you’re looking for an irreverent action/comedy comic that pokes fun at the superhero genre, Funrama by Ryan Kelly is the book for you. Best known for his work on Vertigo’s Lucifer and Local from Oni Press, Kelly is a prolific artist currently working on numerous titles, including Three from Image Comics and his own original web comic, Cocotte. I can’t recommend Kelly’s work enough, but today I’ll focus on Funrama, his indie passion project and love letter to the absurd. The first issue is free to read from FunramaComic.com and the second and third issues available for purchase, both in print and digital formats. Believe me, they are definitely worth checking out.

This tongue-in-cheek romp takes on the familiar genre conventions of cape books – super powers, interdimensional weirdness, and anthropomorphic critters – and runs amok. Based on a series by the same name that Kelly produced in his youth, it features the Mutant Punks, a team of super-powered radicals bent on taking over America. Led by the swashbuckling Concord, they came from a rift in the Bermuda Triangle to wreak havoc wherever they can, including the Mall of America, the Louvre, and the White House. Concord is aided in this anarchistic spree by his girlfriend Twisterella, the living metal man Lead Head, the ghostly troublemaker Fog, and Bombcat, a cat who loves bombs. The cast feel as though they stepped from the pages of underground comics of the 80s and 90s, but makes its allusions to superhero genre clear. This is a book intimately knows and loves what it mocks, and it shows through clever creative choices and social commentary.

The cast draws on genre convention and character archetypes in amusing ways to satirize cape books and commercialism in general. In the hands of a less capable creator, this could definitely become muddled or overly silly, but Kelly strikes a strong balance between thoughtful parody and the juvenile absurdity that the genre tends to lend itself to. While the book pokes fun at the American way of life, it doesn’t get bogged down with needless political commentary, and keeps things moving at a strong clip. The quality of the artwork for a one-man production team is stellar and Kelly’s dialogue throughout the issue is excellent, with well-paced jokes that often had me laughing out loud. The humor is the big draw of this book, I find, even beyond the energetic line work and tight scripting. Like its over-the-top characters, this book is endearingly crass, just like good punks ought to be.

From start to finish, this is a fun and witty read that pulls no punches. Whether you’re a fan of Ryan Kelly or just discovering his work for the first time, I highly recommend giving Funrama a look. You can also find more on Kelly and his work at his blog.