Comic Book Review: New Avengers #19

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It’s the battle you didn’t know you wanted to see—until now! As the New Avengers take on the combined power of the Great Society—and only a single parallel Earth can survive!

After months of preparing for the inevitable, the Illuminati must face the impending horror of their actions as they finally meet the Great Society. Hickman has gone to great lengths to set up this fight, developing the heroes of this parallel Earth and humanizing their struggles to save their doomed world despite insurmountable odds. Floundering in their own hubris and petty squabbles up until this point, the Illuminati’s resolve is beginning to falter in the wake of Uatu’s death as Tony Stark is the first to finally crack beneath the weight of their scheming. As the team meets with the Great Society to find a better solution than the destruction of their world, Namor attacks the Rider, demanding that they all meet their fates head-on and leading to the very fight the Illuminati was trying to avoid.

After nearly twenty issues of laboring with these philosophical questions, Hickman delivers with a well-scripted and fascinating showdown that addresses these problems in substantive ways. The tension between the two teams is striking as the fissures within the Illuminati’s ranks play out, the clashing egos that have always been to their detriment rearing their ugly heads to all but assure the death of the world in question. Meanwhile Maximus is still roaming about the Necropolis, and his secret plan to revive Corvus Glaive poses new threats (and questions) to this already beleaguered team. Considering how the events of Original Sin will surely impact the team moving forward, I’m curious to see where this confrontation takes the team in coming issues.

Schiti continues to be an asset to this title. His pencils are clean and composed, his strong sense of storytelling evident in his intelligent panel compositions and attention to detail. His skill for hair is especially impressive, in that every character, from Black Swan to Namor, Hank McCoy to Reed Richards, has very distinctive hair with varying textures and weight. It’s a detail that I rarely see, as many artists have fairly bland and routine styles for hair that they use character to character. It’s such a small and seemingly unimportant detail, which is why it’s lovely to see Black Swan’s soft and voluminous tresses on the same page with Maximus and his stringy, oily-looking hair. It serves to further develop these characters on the page, grounding their lofty characterizations in such tiny and often overlooked minutiae.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #4

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Captain Marvel has a hunch about the REAL reason behind the forced resettlement of the Rocket Girl’s people and sets out with a new crew to find proof! Turns out Carol’s got a history with the man behind the plot. Rut roh. What time is it? When the bad guy tries to blackmail our hero and use the Avengers against her…Could it be PAYBACK TIME?

Intergalactic diplomacy isn’t one of Carol’s strong suits, but that’s not going to keep her from doing the best she can in Captain Marvel #4. It’s become clear that the refugees on Torfa can’t even come to a consensus for themselves, let alone one with the Spartax as the empire threatens them with yet another relocation. Lacking the resources to care for their sick people but unwilling to leave the dying behind, having lost too many people already, the population is desperate and hopelessly deadlocked.

As J’Son continues aggressively strong-arming Eleanides to leave the planet, Carol comes up with a solution: assemble a fleet of ships and take the sick with them to establish another ring world, like the one lost to the Builders. With the help of a charming team of pilots and runaways, Carol must navigate rising tensions, political intrigue and pirates as she tries to get a fleet of working ships together and keep her word to help the refugees. Because this is Carol Danvers, and she has the uncanny ability to underestimate her opposition, all of this is going to be much easier said than done as she draws the attention of some nefarious interlopers, putting her makeshift crew in increasing danger.

The continued partnership of DeConnick and Lopez is a delight to read, beautifully realized by Loughridge’s color palettes. With her usual strong characterization and knack for dialogue, DeConnick develops Carol’s rag-tag team with fun and capable characters, who serve well to humanize the struggles on Torfa. Jackie is especially memorable and a classic DeConnick secondary character, whose dashing temperament and character design evokes a very Star Wars-esque feel, and totally works for the tone of the story. Lopez’s pencils are as solid as ever, with his diverse range of alien designs and beautiful attention to detail, and are wonderfully complemented by Loughridge’s color work.

In a sea of tedious cape books, Captain Marvel is an example superheroing done right. This book is funny, heartfelt, and always well-balanced by strong scripting and impressive artwork. I’m so glad this book hasn’t missed a step, even with the renumbering.

Comic Book Review: Black Widow #7

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Fresh off her last adventure, the next chapter in Natasha’s story begins in San Francisco, with all the pangs of nostalgia the city has to offer. With her new job bringing her to Matt Murdock’s current stomping grounds, her past continues to nip at her heels, darkening the margins of her life. What begins as a routine gig quickly turns into a set-up as Natasha finds herself in an assassin’s crosshairs, leading to a chase through the city and a reminder that Natasha’s determination to do things alone doesn’t always work to her advantage.

Escaping death, the pursuit puts her Daredevil’s path as she hunts down her would-be assassin. Prefaced by a tense flashback at the beginning of the issue, the relationship between these two heroes remains cold, with Murdock unsure of what to make of Natasha. Despite her quest for redemption, she still brings violence with her wherever she goes, and Murdock isn’t having any of it in his city. Meanwhile Isaiah is back home in New York, where, even for his unwavering loyalty to Natasha, it’s clear to him that his life will continue to be in danger because of her.

Edmondson and Noto deliver another slick and introspective issue as Natasha’s burned bridges continue to haunt her. A straightforward action story gone wrong, not unlike the formula of previous issues, #7 hinges on some interesting scenes between Natasha and Matt, as well as an ongoing conversation between Isaiah and his sister. After seeing her support network develop in the form of Isaiah and Maria Hill, Daredevil’s conflicted guest appearance serves to remind Natasha that she still needs friends, even the ones she’s lost along the way. The growing tension of Isaiah’s story as it quietly unfolds in the background continues to be of interest, and I’m looking forward to seeing just what comes of his loyalty to Natasha despite the warnings against their professional and personal relationship now coming from all sides.

Edmondson’s scripting is cool and composed with great dialogue and narration throughout. As always Noto’s storytelling is as compelling as it is beautiful, and cleverly incorporates Murdock’s heightened senses into panel compositions. The visual use of Natasha’s heart beat as lie detector, as well as the red outlines of people and objects during scenes with Murdock, signify his perceptions without breaking up the narrative or changing perspectives, seamlessly folding them into Natasha’s story. It’s little touches like this that make this one of the best books on the shelves, and one of the best creative teams at work for Marvel.

Comic Book Review: Moon Knight #4

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Moon Knight goes somewhere even more messed up than his own mind. Something is happening to the subjects of a sleep experiment that’s driving them all insane. Go with Moon Knight to the Mushroom graveyard planet for the most troubling and disturbing issue yet!

For weeks Moon Knight #4 has been talked up in previews and solicits as a dark psychedelic trip, and Ellis and Shalvey certainly deliver an issue worthy of the hype. Spector’s latest case brings him to the doorstep of Dr. Skelton, an associate of the late Peter Alraune, and his makeshift research lab. Skelton’s patients, subjects of a highly unusual sleep experiment, are having the same terrifying dream and it’s driving them all insane. Spector’s experiences with Alraune’s research make him as qualified a detective as Skelton can find, and so he plunges himself into the hallucinogenic dreamscape Skelton’s patients have tapped into.

What awaits Spector is a nightmarish world of fungal infestation, a forest of spores and toxic growth that overtake the superstructures of bones and cities. In this hell a dead man waits dreaming, a wandering ghost who can’t leave the facility, his trapped consciousness dreaming this plane into existence and pulling others in with him. Spector’s journey beyond the veil is one of the most unsettling and visually pleasing sequences I’ve seen from this already satisfying title. Shalvey’s rendering of the dreamscape is truly unearthly, a place beyond time and space, made of bones and flesh and city blocks that is both everywhere and nowhere. Bellaire’s vibrant palettes bring these strange landscapes to the page in surreal contrast to the negative space Moon Knight invites into the panel, using the whites of the gutters to invade the surreally colorful world they define.

Ellis is at the top of his game with this issue, from the dialogue to the pacing, to the final disturbing revelation, You’ve been breathing in his dreams. From the first page to the last, this was the best scripted issue yet. Emerging from his dream state, Spector returns to the waking world where he confronts Skelton about the source of his patients’ nightmares. Trapped beneath the floor of the ramshackle lab is the body of a patient who died during the experiment, his body and brain overtaken by a fungal infection. Hiding the body in the floor, Skelton told no one of the patient’s death and allowed him to be consumed by the fungus until the spores released into the air, taking the man’s consciousness with them.

While the previous issues felt a little rushed in their endings, stopping just short of a more natural conclusion, the sudden end works well here. The abruptness of the finish hits like a punch and leaves the reader genuinely unsettled as the spores drift around Spector’s pure white silhouette, a subtle but lasting reminder of the dead man’s endless dreams. Wonderfully scripted and visually stunning, Moon Knight #4 is an unsettling journey into the unknown and the best issue this creative team has offered so far.

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel #4

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Marvel’s breakout hit, Ms. Marvel, continues as Kamala Khan discovers the dangers of her newfound powers. And unlocks a secret behind them as well. Don’t miss the boldest (and adorable-est!) hero to make her Marvel debut!

After getting shot during Vick’s botched robbery, Kamala learns a few new things about her powers inMs. Marvel #4. A panicked Bruno calls the police as Vick flees the scene, and Kamala must return to her form and tell her friend the truth. Post-transformation, however, Kamala discovers her powers give her the ability to heal herself, emerging from the ordeal completely unscathed. When the cops arrive to the demolished corner store Kamala is unable to shape-shift, her body unable to do both actions at once, so she improvises with Bruno’s help. Putting on mask and calling herself Ms. Marvel, the unenthused cops dismiss the crime as costumed shenanigans, having already seen their fair share of superhero nonsense.

The immediate threat passed, Bruno must find his brother Vick, who has fallen into a dangerous crowd with someone called the Inventor. Just proven her worth as a hero-in-training, Kamala promises to help find him, assembling a makeshift costume (giving readers a glimpse of her future outfit) and going to the abandoned house where Vick’s been frequenting with other young delinquents. With her new mask and suitably imposing powers, Kamala easily gains entrance inside the old hideout, only to find more than she bargained for. The house is filled with mechanical creatures, spider-like robots that descend from every direction to chase Kamala with laser weapons. She escapes to the basement where Vick is being held but the Inventor is waiting for her, and she didn’t plan ahead for the confrontation.

Wilson’s scripting is as strong as in the previous three issues, and the humor and emotional core of this series is still rock solid. Artist Alphona and colorist Herring continue to knock it out of the park, and together this creative team delivers yet another delightful read. With rising stakes and now her first real superhero gig, Kamala Khan continues coming into her own as both a hero and a person. Bolstered by her newfound survival skills, she employs all of her fangirl knowledge of video games and RPGs to help her navigate this brave new world of crime-fighting. This is a smart move on the part of writer Wilson, to use Kamala’s geeky experiences as the framework for her understanding of a situation she knows nothing about. Kamala’s insistence that she has this under control, even in the face of mounting odds, keeps her grounded as an every-girl and a fan, reflecting interests and knowledge that the reader can immediately identify with.

This is why Kamala Khan is the most endearing character in the Marvel stable right now, if not on the shelves period. Yes, she’s a woman, and she’s Muslim, and she’s Pakistani. Yes, she appeals to demographics that have been historically left behind by mainstream cape books, but she also appeals to every awkward teenager, every fan, and every outsider who takes comfort in their pop culture of choice. But it’s not just about pop culture, comic books and video games. When he first arrived on the scene, and for many decades to come, Peter Parker was Marvel’s stand-in for young and disenfranchised readers, looking for a voice amid the endless examples of seemingly perfect, put-together adult heroes. Other heroes have filled this role as well, some more successfully than others, and now it appears to be Kamala’s turn, growing pains and all. And I’m eager to see where this journey takes her.

Comic Book Review: Elektra #2

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Elektra braves the dangers of Monster Island and a rival assassin in her search of the elusive assassin known as Cape Crow! The psychotic killer Bloody Lips closes in on Marvel’s deadliest femme fatale!

After a strong debut, Elektra’s strange journey to Monster Island takes a turn for the unexpected. While Bloody Lips is running loose, cannibalizing assassins for their knowledge of Cape Crow’s whereabouts, Elektra encounters killers Scalphunter and Lady Bullseye in a mother monster’s nest. This explosive and visually stunning fight sequence brings Lady Bulleye into the clutches of the psychotic Bloody Lips as Elektra encounters what appears to be Cape Crow. To her disappointment, it turns out to be his son, Kento Roe, wearing his father’s suit and mask.

As Matchmaker arrives on the island, Elektra soon learns that Kento was the one who put out the contract on his father’s head, offering Matchmaker money that he didn’t have to put Elektra on the charge. Trusting his father to be rehabilitated, he hopes to secure Cape Crow’s safe return as Guild assassins race to the island to collect the bounty. Elektra believes that the boy is either lying or delusional about his father’s better nature, but takes Kento at his word, vowing to find Cape Crow in exchange for all of his father’s contacts, weapons and money. Kento agrees to the deal, and he, Elektra and Matchmaker set off to find Cape Crow in his hiding place in China.

Building on the mystery of the opening issue, Blackman and Del Mundo do not disappoint in Elektra #2, delivering another tightly-scrimped and beautifully executed book. Blackman’s talent for dialogue is impressive, balancing the dual narration of Elektra and Bloody Lips through strong characterization and language. He’s established an appropriately eerie tone for the strange and dangerous world he’s dropped Elektra into, as the timeless, otherworldly quality of characters like Matchmaker serve to make Elektra’s world all the stranger. There’s also a prose-like quality to his scripting that I find really refreshing, the action sequences diffused by sparse conversations that read like well-paced prose.

As with the last issue, Del Mundo’s artwork is stellar. His sense of pacing and storytelling is superb, but every line, every gesture is so wonderfully expressive. Even the rounded boundaries of panels, defined by thick smudged strokes, take on a dynamism of their own, vibrating with the barely-contained energy that moves across the page as it does in the jungles of Monster Island. Del Mundo’s palettes, with the help of colorist Marco D’Alfonso, beautifully develop the often flat, vague spaces that the characters inhabit with delicate fields of color and painterly detail to create define this cool and alien world in soft pastels.

I really enjoyed the last issue, but I absolutely loved Elektra #2. If you haven’t picked this book up, I suggest you do so. It’s definitely worth a read

Comics Creators: David Hatch

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Let me preface this by saying I usually don’t review comic strips. I don’t often encounter them in any kind of journalistic capacity, and academically speaking most classes I’ve taken on analysis of graphic narrative and comic books tend to shy away from the comic strip in general. At least in my respective Art and English departments, they seemed to suffer from an inability to really talk about comic strips in any meaningful way.

That said, I first came across David Hatch’s comics just a month or so ago. David sent me an email, asking me to look over his site and give him some feedback on his comics. While it took me a little longer than I would have liked to oblige, as I was distracted by various deadlines and exams, when I finally got around to looking at his work, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

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There’s something I love about David Hatch’s comics. There’s a childlike charm to them, an innocent absurdity that defines the weirdness of his subject matter. Drawing on pop culture references specifically from the horror genre, there’s a tongue-in-cheek silliness to his work that’s really refreshing. His work remains almost doggedly hopeful despite sometimes seemingly dark circumstances. By his own account, David is indeed a hopeful guy, who finds peace in meditation and making comics. In his own words:

I try to be simple and minimalist in my approach. I try to be clear. I want everyone (from young to old) to understand the gags. I want the art to be as basic as I can make it. I also like to use simple tools and materials to make the comics. I work off a board that I place in my lap, leaning it against a desk. I draw with Microns on cheap printer paper from Staples office supply. I don’t ever use Photoshop or the computer in any way. Corrections are made with white paint and a tiny sable brush. I don’t have any art training other than some classes from high school. But I always liked to doodle, and I’ve always loved the funny papers and comic books, so I’m just a regular guy who wanted to try drawing one.

tumblr_n45nn1N5iB1t0oh1ko1_1280If you’re curious, you can find more of Davids’s comics at THE LOOKY EMPIRE. Stop by and give his work a peep. It’s definitely worth the trek.

Comic Book Review: Captain Marvel #3

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Captain Marvel & the Guardians of the Galaxy! Carol takes her mysterious alien passenger home… and lands in the middle of an uprising against the Galactic Alliance! Does our good soldier obey orders — or defy the Avengers and side with David against Goliath? Two guesses. First one doesn’t count.

Captain Marvel and the Guardians are still stuck with a wayward child and a political mess on their hands after the last issue, as Tic hijacks Carol’s ship to try to kill Star-Lord. A scared and angry child, doomed to return to the poisoned planet Torfa and stalled diplomatic talks with the Spartax Empire, Tic is easily reined back in as Carol all but breaks into her stolen ship to retrieve her cat Chewie. Seeing the plight of Tic’s people, refugees of the Builders’ march across the stars, Carol agrees to return to Torfa to help. However, the situation on the ground is much more complicated than Carol first thought, as the poisoned refugees refuse to leave the planet despite the unknown illness sweeping through their population, fearing a Spartax conspiracy but unwilling to start over on another world and leave the dying behind. As diplomatic talks break down, Carol’s attempts to interfere, no matter how well-intentioned, fall on deaf ears, and she learns the only way to help the people of Torfa is to deal with the illness itself.

DeConnick, Lopez and Loughridge continue to make a great creative team as this storyline unfolds into a very human political drama, hitting all the right notes. The scripting is solid and well-balanced by equal measures of humor and action, Carol’s dogged resolve brought to the page by DeConnick’s skill for dialogue and strong characterizations. Even the stock alien characters like Eleanides have a real sense of character and purpose, leading to a tense but much needed reality check for the presumptuous Carol. DeConnick’s Carol is always growing, dealing with small but critical challenges that help to shape the person she’s becoming, and so far this arc has shown Carol’s development in subtle and satisfying ways.

Lopez’s line work continues to impress, capturing much of the inherent comedy through lively characters expressions and great attention to detail. While Groot only appears for the first few pages, the loving detail given to every gnarled branch is worth highlighting as Lopez’s knack for organic shapes is remarkable. And did anyone else catch what appears to be a statue of Cthulhu in the final page of the sick ward on Torfa, slightly obscured by overgrown brush and tree limbs? Colorist Loughridge’s palettes and use of shading, especially during the space chase at the beginning of the issue, is pleasing from start to finish.

Comic Book Review: New Avengers #18

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In all of creation, only one Earth has successfully met and triumphed over each Incursion that has threatened it: the Earth of the heroes of the Great Society! Guess which Earth is on a collision course with ours?

As Original Sin picks up steam and the showdown between Captain America and Iron Man unfolds in the pages of Avengers #29, it’s now or never for the Illuminati. Now faced with the impending incursion with the Great Society, the team faces the choice handed to them: murder the only heroes to have fended off the Mapmakers, or face their own destruction. As T’Challa turns to his ancestors to steel his resolve, Bruce Banner joins the roster and teams up with McCoy to offer some new solutions so stave off the death of the Multiverse. Meanwhile, Stephen Strange finally returns from selling his soul and Tony Stark, fresh from a rather dramatic beat-down by Cap and the Avengers, is beginning to lose focus on the task at hand, bringing him to Black Swan’s cage for answers.

Gaining momentum from the tension of the Original Sin event, New Avengers #18 is a solid read that explores the deepening fissures in this team. Just as it seemed that T’Challa and Namor were finally able to come to overcome their longstanding feud, T’Challa’s father asks him why he has yet to kill the Atlantean, sowing the seeds for future conflict. As Reed Richards appears to have accepted the realities of the Illuminati’s struggle against annihilation, Tony is beginning to waver after his confrontation with Steve. It’s interesting to see Tony’s transition from cold certainty in Avengers #29 to indecision of this issue, determined to find new alternatives in light of his betrayal. Banner also makes a logical addition to the team, and hopefully he’ll be given a chance to do something useful rather than be relegated to the background as Hank McCoy has been.

While Hickman delivers another strong script that poses some compelling questions, Valerio Schiti on pencils is the real highlight of the issue for me. I really enjoyed Rags Morales’ artwork as of late, but the strength of Schiti’s line work, with his delicate crosshatch shading and rounded forms, brings a softened quality to the story. His expressive style helps to add an emotional weight to the title which it has frequently lacked, often lost in muddled character details and murky coloring. Schiti’s pencils are beautifully complemented by Martin’s decidedly more neutral color choices, continuing the trend of clean lines and brighter palettes. A solid read all around for this creative team.

Writing and the Writer: Texas Frightmare Weekend 2014

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Earlier this month I ventured the forty-five minutes to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to attend the ninth annual Texas Frightmare Weekend. This was my third appearance at the convention, invited by publisher Eric Beebe of Post Mortem Press, and in attendance with gang of authors Brad Carter (Saturday Night of the Living Dead), Chris Larsen (Losing Touch), Andrew Nienaber (STZ), Billie Sue  Mosiman (The Grey Matter), and C. Bryan Brown (Necromancer). Max Booth III (Toxicity) did a (largely) factual write-up of the whole sordid affair, which you can read here on LitReactor.com, chronicling all of our various adventures behind the table. I’ll let you read his summary rather than write my own, because this isn’t about the convention or promotion. It’s about how I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin.

While I had been to this event before, in 2012 and 2011, this was my first real, honest convention appearance.  My first two appearances, by my standards, were abysmal. That’s okay, though, because they were learning experiences. Back then I was a novice who had never worked a convention before, let alone finished a book worth selling. Now I have my first novel under my belt, another in the can, and five more installments on the way. I also have established myself, to some degree, as a comic book reviewer, with several interviews and podcast appearances to give me time to practice how to sell myself. Because, as an author, I’m always selling myself. I know that now. When I was a young and inexperienced writer, I was given some really terrible advice about separating myself from my work. Back then I was told I wasn’t worth promoting, that I had no place in the reader’s mind when buying a book.

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Me and a little one from Werepups.com

But if you’re at a table, or answering questions at a panel, speaking to people face-to-face, you’re part of the package. You’re part of the sale, a piece of what’s being bought. Whatever persona you put on, whatever airs you choose to persuade people to purchase your work, the reader is paying for that as well. When I was younger, that idea terrified me, too afraid to put myself out there, to sell my work to people on the floor. I felt like I hadn’t yet earned the right, that I was some kind of pretender waiting to be found out. That I wasn’t smart enough, or talented enough, or engaging enough to be worth their time.

When I walked out onto the convention floor this time around, I was admittedly a little nervous. The crowds at TFW are not quite what I’m used to dealing with over in my corner of the internet these days, as I move away from horror fiction to focus on superhero fiction and cape book reviews. But after a little while, I relaxed. I was joking with people in line to get in on opening night, chatting with other vendors in the smoking area outside. I stood at the head of the table whenever I could squeeze between my fellow countrymen and talked with people as they walked by, sometimes about books and sometimes about nothing at all. I didn’t sell a book to everybody, but I tried to give people a reason to come back, or to look us up online. People came up to me later on the floor, whenever I got away from the table for a little bit to stretch my legs. They all smiled or shook my hand, and told me how nice it was to speak to me at the table. That felt like a victory, albeit a small one.

On Saturday afternoon, me, Brad, and the assorted Chrises were on a writing panel. The topic was why writers tend to be drunks. I think the schedule put it a little nicer than that, but that was basically the gist of the conversation. It was a small conference room, seating around fifty people; not every seat was taken but it was a good crowd. Here they were, listening to our stories and nodding their heads, their hands flying up with questions. As I sat there, I felt wholly at ease. A year or two ago, I probably would have crawled out of my skin, or resorted to just trying to be funny and get a laugh out of people, too nervous to say anything substantive. Instead I jumped right in, answering questions and talking about my book, my personal struggles, and my attempts to try to elevate genre fiction in my own work, be it fiction or reviews. (Sure, we talked a lot about getting drunk and not wearing pants, too, but everybody knows I do that all the time.) And when people came up to the table later, or caught me in the hallway, to shake my hand and thank me for what I said at the panel, that felt like an even bigger victory.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2014, as I later found out, was a record-breaking weekend for Post Mortem and I was one of the best-selling authors at the table. That’s satisfying enough, but what I took away from that con was a sense of accomplishment. I came to TFW wanting to prove to myself that I could sell my work and myself, and engage with readers in a meaningful way without the safety of a computer screen. Maybe I didn’t sell a hundred copies of my book, and maybe I wasn’t at San Diego Comic Con in Hall H, staring into an eager sea of fans. But I still felt good about what I had accomplished, and about the people that I met along the way. That, to me, is what matters the most.