(A Story for Halloween): “Dare You Spend a Night in…The Armageddon House?”

Trick or treat, eh?

When we were kids my brother (with me abetting) would sometimes put on plays for Halloween (or build spaceships on the lawn!) And so I feel I should try and do something “festive” in that vein – like post a Halloween story. So presented here is a story from my “Masques Chronicles” – “The Masques Chronicles” being my collection of prose stories imagining a decades-spanning Canadian superhero universe (the different tales playing around with the different eras, themes, and sub-genres of a superhero universe). This story occupies the spooky/Halloween niche of the collection. It’s about a 1950s psychiatrist-turned-occult investigator, Conrad Idris (dubbed “Dr. Id” by the press), investigating a house plagued by apocalyptic apparitions; mixing Old School archetypes (paranormal investigator spending the night in a spooky haunted house) with some (hopefully) novel twists. My Masques project was riffing on superheroes, but the 1950s was when horror comics and plain clothes occult detectives (like Dr. 13, Dr. Droom/Druid, Challengers of the Unknown, etc.) enjoyed success. Hence this story about: Dr. Id – The Ghost-Detective! It’s a mash up of 1950s tropes blending haunted houses, psychoanalysis, the Cold War, comic book stylings (written in a deliberately purply 2nd person, kinda like old supernatural comics!) and with a Canadian spin. “Dare You Enter…the Armageddon House?”

(And, obviously: if you enjoy it, consider checking out the entire Masques Chronicles, vol. 1 and 2, or any of my books — many free with Kindle Unlimited :)).

“DARE YOU SPEND A NIGHT IN…THE ARMAGEDDON HOUSE?”

by D.K. Latta

(from Chilling Mystic Comics #80, Oct.,1957)

IT’S MERE DAYS from All Hallows’ Eve this October evening as you pull up the collar of your coat against the brittle wind. Through the black iron fence you peer up at the old house that rises forlornly upon the hill. Beyond it can be glimpsed a new suburban development; rows upon rows of shoe box houses soon to become homes for the burgeoning middle class, but currently dark and empty. The Victorian-era house stands incongruously before these domiciles of tomorrow like a guarding scarecrow.

The gate creaks mournfully as you step onto a path strewn with orange and red autumn leaves. The mansion looms ahead, its windows like eyes glazed over with glaucoma.

Now that you are here do you regret agreeing to this? Or are you pausing on the stone path simply to remember how it began…?

~

Your name is Conrad Idris, a doctor of psychiatry, which makes you a priest, after a fashion, of the new religion in this year of our Lord, 1957. A philosophical interregnum, if you will, where the superstition of yesteryear meets the rationality of tomorrow. And you are one of those who choose to walk that blurry demarcation.

Who was it who claimed psychotherapy was the new confessional? Can you remember?

Your practice is in the town of Martyr’s Wood, Ontario, on the middle floor of a three story building, with a lawyer’s office above and a curio shop on the ground floor. You are an American by birth — a Negro, a coloured, a black. You were the first in your family to graduate from University — and the first to ever fall in love with a white woman.

The relationship had not been easy. Strangers on the street would give you dirty looks. You had to unlist your phone number to discourage death threats. Many in your own family refused to even attend the wedding.

You can’t recall which of you suggested emigrating to Canada, the birthplace of your wife. But it was hoped that the colder climes would prove warmer. Oh, you weren’t naive enough to believe a border suddenly altered thousands of years of the tribalism that so cruelly retarded humanity’s nobler potential. A man of reason and logic like yourself knew that was too much to expect. But there was that cliché of Canadian politeness you hoped would mute the more egregious discriminations.

And it was not your commingling of two races alone that provided an impetus for your relocation, was it? Anti-communist hysteria was warping America, ironically, into the very thing it so desperately feared. It was a hysteria that has found — marginally — less traction in this vast land of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent. The country even has an openly socialist government in Saskatchewan, in the form of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation under Tommy Douglas.

You have experienced prejudice here, there is no denying that. But on balance you did not regret the move, did you? Except for the fact that it all came to nothing on a dark, rain swept road one year ago.

It was because of all that (not that he was aware of it) that Roger Corbin came to your practice. For in addition to being a psychiatrist you had begun to cultivate another reputation: that of a man who investigated — the unusual.

“The house,” Corbin said with little preamble, seated before your desk, “is haunted.”

You did not react to that proclamation from the wiry white man with the limp, did you? You are too much the professional for that. Instead you tented your fingers before you, the arcane signet ring — a wedding gift from your wife — glinting in the light filtering through the blinds. Calmly, in your deep baritone, you said, “We are all haunted, in our way, Mr. Corbin. By things we’ve done, or wished we had done…”

“I’m not talking about that, eh? — I’m talking about really haunted. Bumps in the night and all that.” He leaned forward, the cushion beneath him sighing in a way that was slightly inappropriate. “And I hear you can help, eh? The papers call you Doctor Id, the Ghost-Detective.”

You grimaced, never having liked that appellation. “I have taken an interest in reports of the paranormal,” you conceded. “Primarily as a debunker. I have rarely found there isn’t a rational explanation for even the seeming most inexplicable of phenomenon.” If Corbin noticed your use of the caveat “rarely” he did not show it. Perhaps he did not want to know.

“Sure, sure,” Corbin told you, waving his hand as though shooing a fly. “I know you’ve helped the cops once or twice. And there was something about a lake monster that turned out to be smugglers. Frankly — I don’t care. Goons or ghosts or a gas leak, I just need it solved, eh?” Corbin looked at you plaintively. “Look, Doc, I spent eighteen months in and out of hospital after getting shot up in Korea — hell, I’ve spent almost half as long recovering from that damn war as we spent fighting it, eh? But my Gladys, well, she stuck with me, bless her. And when I finally got on my feet we sunk our savings in that old place. A boarding house, maybe the first of many — leastways that was the plan. But now we can’t get anyone to even stay in it, and we’re in danger of falling behind on the mortgage.”

An old fashioned haunted house did not sound like the most taxing of assignments, did it? So why did you accept so quickly, Doctor Id? Was it something sentimental? Was it Corbin’s reference to his loving wife that stirred your empathy for the little man?

Did it remind you of your own beloved wife? The one who had died upon a dark, rain swept night?

~

The front door of the old house swings soundlessly inward on well-maintained hinges. No spine-shivering creaking like out of some B-movie. Does that disappoint you? Rationalist or not, even you can admit to enjoying a bit of theatricality now and again if you want. You may enjoy losing yourself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations or settling back to a literary adaptation on the radio — but you’ve also been known to partake of a creature feature at the local bijoux, too, haven’t you?

The moon behind you spreads your shadow across the hardwood floor, stabbing into the house. You grimace, imagining how Sigmund Freud would interpret that imagery, and quickly you flip on the lights. You’ve never been a strict Freudian, after all.

Some of the bulbs on the chandelier have burned out, lending the fixture the aspect of a crone leering at you with missing teeth. There are moth-eaten green drapes drooping by the windows in the main hall. You are aware of the creaking elicited by the wind rattling through the old house.

It is an eerie domicile, there’s no disputing that. But surely that alone cannot account for the weird apparitions reported by its guests, or justify the house’s current absence of any paying boarders?

You drop your overnight bag at your feet and slowly close the door.

But are you shutting out the darkness and the cool wind? Or are you shutting in whatever secrets the old house hoards so miserly?

And shutting yourself in with them?

How badly do you want to know?

~

Do you remember what you told Roger Corbin, Doctor Id? About how we are all haunted by what we’ve done and haven’t done? Did you think to include yourself in that particular bit of psychiatric insight? Or were you arrogant enough to think you were somehow exempt from your own advice?

Is that why you’re writhing in this bed in the middle of the night: because you are haunted by the past? Or will you blame the house’s creepy ambience and its ill-coloured curtains?

Surely nightmares are things you bring with you, like luggage — not things you find in new rooms, like cheap towels?

You’ve had this dream before — haven’t you? The rain drenched night, the road dark as pitch. Why is it do you think that wet roads absorb light so thoroughly? Perhaps if you had studied physics in university as opposed to psychiatry you would be able to answer that. Not that understanding the principles involved would have altered the outcome of that night, one year gone. Knowing the principles of light refraction would hardly have stopped that deer from bounding out into the road, would it? Understanding how water and macadam combine to form a tar-black void would in no way have stopped your beloved wife from screaming for you to turn, to avoid hitting the animal.

And graduating as a physicist would not have prevented your Ford sedan from crashing into that tree that probably pre-dated Confederation — would it?

But knowing that the events of that night occurred as they did because there was no other way for them to unfold doesn’t affect how your heart feels about them, does it? And that’s something a psychiatrist understands, but a physicist might not.

And yet being a psychiatrist doesn’t really help you to explain what occurred next, does it? As you lay sprawled in the front seat of your car, a warm wetness dribbling down your face. Do you remember being dazed and idly thinking some regulator needs to make seat belts obligatory and not just an optional feature like a radio?

Then you stared with mounting horror as you realized the limp form strewn across the dashboard was no longer your beautiful wife, no longer anything but cooling flesh. Consciousness began slipping mercifully away. But before it did your eyes slipped across the glass of the rear view mirror — and you saw your wife staring back at you from the mirror with a sadness in her eyes but a sympathetic smile on her lips.

The next thing you recall was waking up in a hospital. There was a pain in your broken ribs — and an agonizing question in your mind.

What was it you had seen that night? The rational part of your educated mind insisted an illusion like that would surely occur later. Once your brain had a chance to process the tragedy it would possibly seek succour in some comforting fantasy. But not at the very moment it was happening.

Yet what other explanation was there? That your wife’s soul had somehow escaped her body? That it existed on another plane, peering at you from out of mirrors — once called looking glass? Surely that was more preposterous.

Occam’s Razor, after all, says the most likely explanation is the truth.

Ah, but there was one other factor to calculate in, wasn’t there? For the colour of your skins was not the only thing that made your marriage one that crossed boundaries and cultures, was it?

You are a man of science — and your wife had once told you she came from a long line of witches.

Wasn’t it this mystery, this soul weighing question as to what you truly saw that night, that was the real reason you investigated stories of the paranormal — because you hoped one day to understand?

Is that why you find yourself waking with a start from terrible memories in a seeming endless parade of weird houses and chilling locales?

Or is it something else that awoke you tonight?

You sit up in bed, panting, sweat gleaming off your dark skin, feeling the bed dip at the base of your spine because the mattress is too thin and too old. Bitterly you wonder if that’s the explanation for Corbin’s vacating tenants: it’s just not that nice a place.

You don’t really believe that, do you? Not when you can hear strange sounds thrumming through the walls.

You throw aside your blankets and drop your bare feet to the cold floor, dressed only in beige pyjamas bottoms. There is a dawn-red glow radiating through the drawn curtains. Yet the clock on the bed table says it’s only midnight — the Witching Hour. You rise and nudge aside the curtain.

Are you still dreaming? Isn’t that the question a rationalist like you must first ask?

After all, Occam’s ever so sharp and shiny Razor must surely question the plausibility of a trio of hovering army helicopters starkly etched against the backdrop of those uninhabited suburban bungalows, soldiers rappelling down lines like so many four-limbed spiders. The sky is a boiling blood red like you’ve never seen before.

Can you feel your heart pounding in your chest like it wants to run away and is prepared to do so even if the rest of your body mulishly stays where it is?

Then you see the soldiers more clearly. And it’s not the hammer and sickle insignias that shocks you the most, is it? With all the modern paranoia about the Russian bear you could almost rationalize it. No — the shocking thing is their bone-white visages.

The Russian soldiers have the faces of human skulls!

A jangling sound snaps across your back like a spasm, causing you to drop the curtain back into place. You spin, heart pounding.

It’s the phone in the hall.

RRR-Ring! RRR-Ring!

You curse in your mind, realizing it will betray that the house is inhabited — betray you to the skeleton Russians.

And suddenly that makes it seem all so absurd, doesn’t it?

RRR-Ring! RRR-Ring!

You look about and realize the bedroom is no longer suffused with a reddish aura. You no longer hear the thrumming of chopper blades. Haltingly, you tug aside the curtain and look out upon a dark and empty yard.

RRR-Ring! RRR-click!

“Hello,” you gasp hoarsely into the receiver, having stumbled out into the hall where the phone is affixed to the wall.

“Conrad, that you?” comes a familiar voice as you stare about you wildly. “Oh — Jeez! I wasn’t looking at the time. Did I wake you?”

“Marlene?” you croak thickly, only slowly identifying the voice through the crackingly line. Marlene Abramstein, a local reporter, and one of your closest friends in this country. “No — no, it’s okay. I just had a curious…experience. A dream. What’s up?”

“Can you hear me well enough?” comes the voice, the hiss and the crackle on the line rising and subsiding as though the wind outside has loosened the lines somewhere. What if the line breaks? You tell yourself you’re not scared to spend a night in an old spooky house even if there’s no line to the outside world.

Still, even you have to concede that there’s a comfort to be found in a familiar voice, as if you’re not fully alone in the house.

Even though you are.

Marlene has pressed on. “I’ve been digging around into the archives as you asked — haven’t found anything too mysterious about that old house. No histories of hauntings or curses or anything. At least nothing that made the old papers. I guess if there were you could diagnose it as — what — mass hysteria? People hear the house is haunted and so they psyche themselves up into believing it?”

You allow yourself a small smile, despite the way your heart is still thumping from your own recent little experience with such hysteria. “In layman’s terms — close enough. So if there’s no folklore associated with this place, what about more material matters?”

“Well that’s a mite more interesting. The place was put on the market last year and bought up-”

“By the Corbins.”

“No — this is before them. That’s where it gets slightly interesting. It was bought up by some sort of consortium. They had it for about a year, never really seemed to do anything with it. Then they missed a mortgage payment, the bank foreclosed faster n’ you can say Jack Robinson, and offered it up again. That’s when the Corbins came along.”

You purse your lips — it’s a tic you try to avoid when dealing with patients. “Any way of learning if these previous owners had similar problems as the Corbins? Is that why they bailed?”

Marlene chuckles, her laugh breaking in and out on the line. “Not until tomorrow — and maybe not even then. As I say, it was some sort of consortium, and the trail seems to fade after they missed that last payment. Probably investors pulled out and it ceased to exist.”

You thank Marlene and hang up. Then you stand in the hall in your bare feet and pyjamas bottoms hearing the attic rafters creak in the wind. Without a voice on the phone, it’s easier to remember how alone you are.

But you’re not afraid, are you? Everything has a rational explanation.

Most things, anyway.

That’s why, two minutes later, you’re standing out in the back yard, shoes pulled over your sockless feet, a coat thrown over your pyjamas. But a quick scan of the grounds with a flashlight confirms what you knew had to be true — that there is nothing out here. No indication the area was the site of swooping helicopters or corpse-like soldiers. Yet you can’t find any tell-tale signs of deliberate fraud, can you? No power cables or screens that could have been used for projections. And then, just to be thorough, you spend the next fifteen minutes walking the house, from the main floor to the drafty, unfinished attic, without uncovering anything suggestive.

What did you expect to find? The first Mrs. Rochester perhaps?

Still, Roger Corbin’s seeming run-of-the-mill haunted house is proving to be a little less run-of-the-mill after all. Ghosts and bumps in the night are one thing; red skies and skeleton armies — quite something else.

~

Another person might have found it impossible to sleep; but not you, Doctor Id. Is that because being unable to sleep would be an admission that you’re genuinely afraid? And an admission of fear would be tantamount to confessing you’re afraid you’ll be unable to explain the house’s sinister eccentricities? Which, in itself, could be diagnosed as a fear of failure: inutilophobia. Or is it simpler than that? Are you actually afraid of being afraid? Phobophobia, if you will.

Or can you sleep simply because you are, in the end, tired?

When you awaken again you instantly glance at your clock to see that it is a quarter past one AM — barely an hour since you closed your eyes.

This time you aren’t sure what awoke you, are you? There is no thrumming sound that you had, belatedly, realized was associated with helicopter blades. No red glow through the curtains. You have an insistent headache — but not enough of one to drag you from Little Nemo’s slumberland.

Is it disconcerting not knowing? To realize it was the instinctive part of your brain that must have kicked you awake — the fight or flight impulse? And as a man of science you’d prefer it be the rational part of your brain that always dictates your actions.

Slipping from your bed, you creep to the bedroom door and softly ease it open. Why softly? Do you accept the possibility that you aren’t, after all, alone in the old house?

Or are you afraid that you still are?

Are these the sort of thoughts that tumble through your head like a hamster on a wheel as you creep through the dark hall to the top of the stairs? Do even you know which you fear more — the known or the unknown?

It doesn’t matter now, because you stiffen as you see a moving shadow below where there should be no shadows.

“Who’s there?” you shout, attempting bravado.

Whoever — or whatever — it is, doesn’t seem to respond, does it? It neither steps more clearly into the moonlight creeping through a lower window, nor does it scurry away. What does your rational mind make of that behaviour?

Then another shadow moves and you realize there is more than one down there.

More than one — of what?

“Heeelllppp meeee,” hisses a soft, almost sibilant voice, almost as though coming from the bottom of a well.

“Heeeelllp meee,” comes another.

Well, Doctor Id — why don’t you help? You swore the Hippocratic Oath did you not? Is it that you aren’t convinced the shadows are any more substantial than the soldiers had been? Or is it that there is no passion, no desperation to the moaned entreaties? Instead the voices are hollow, and soulless — the words seeming as if uttered by rote.

Now the shadows are shuffling toward the foot of the stairs. They stumble, they stagger, arms outstretched as though to feel their way.

After all, if the mountain won’t go to Mohammed – Mohammed will come looking for the mountain.

Is it reasonable to say you are afraid now as you back away? Or is there still a logical explanation, do you think? Strangely, the moving shadows below bring to mind reports you read about the aftermath of the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade ago, and how first responders found blinded people stumbling aimlessly through the debris.

Is it because of that association that you react as quickly as you do when the hall is suddenly flooded with an unearthly light? Do you intuitively infer what it is even before you can fully put a name to it? Does the rational part of your brain owe a Thank You note and flowers to the instinctive part that sends you leaping back into your bedroom, slamming the door behind you even as the hall outside is enveloped in a blinding light?

As you collapse upon the floor, hyperventilating, is it possible that they have finally done it? Destroyed the world? Isn’t that what everyone has been fearing for the last few years? Isn’t that the sword that has been hung over mankind’s head by the Americans and the Russians who in their hubris have decided they get to decide if the rest of the world lives or dies?

But then that rational part of your brain kicks in again, doesn’t it? That part that makes you more than an animal motivated solely by primal impulses. Those stumbling figures below had appeared before the atomic blast just now. And this house wouldn’t be standing if a nuclear bomb had gone off a few miles away.

Would it?

Haltingly, you climb back to your feet and gingerly reach for the door knob, ready to pull back if it’s too hot — but that’s silly, isn’t it? You know none of that was real.

Boldly, you close your fist around the knob. It’s cool. But you knew that. At least, that’s what you’ll tell yourself.

You open the door and peer out into a hall that is unscorched. You listen but there are no sounds from below.
It was another hallucination.

But if it was that and nothing more, then is there a rational explanation for why the back of your left hand is hot and peeling, as though subjected to extreme sun burn? The hand that had pulled the door closed as you sought to leap from the phantom nuclear explosion?

Well, Doc — is there?

Is it maybe time to pack your bag and leave? Have the events in this old house finally tested your ability to explain the unexplainable?

Or is the fact that you are struggling for a rationalization just making you more determined to stick it out? No matter the physical danger?

Do you have anything in your overnight bag for sun burns?

~

Five minutes later you are crawling about the floor in the bedroom. Your left arm is wrapped in gauge and you’ve taken a few painkillers for the headache chewing away at the back of your thoughts. Hopefully they’ll be able to head it off before it blossoms into a migraine.

What are you looking for, Doc? Mouse holes?

Whatever you were hoping for — wires to a projector, a tube from which hallucinogenic gas might be pumped — you sit back on your heels, thwarted. There is no evidence of such chicanery.

RRR-Ring! RRR-Ring!

Watch it, Doctor Id — you almost jumped out of your skin there, provided such a thing was possible. A smart, educated man like yourself shouldn’t be so easily spooked by Alexander Graham Bell’s little toy.

You scramble into the hall, grabbing up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Conrad?” It’s Marlene again. “Boy — glad…still awake.” The line crackles and hisses worse than before and instinctively you glance toward the window at the end of the hall — the same window from which the phantom nuclear explosion had come. You can see leaves darting past the glass like agitated fish in a fish tank. “Found…more. Turned out a city registrar…late night poker game. I…tracked him down. He…consortium had links to an orphanage. But-”

But — what? Such a simple word can alter the import of a sentence, or undercut an entire train of thought. “But” is the fulcrum that can move ideas. But…it doesn’t matter, does it? The line has gone dead.

You stand there in the hall for a moment, not even being reassured with a static hiss.

As you cradle the receiver you hear a creak behind you. Not one of the by-now familiar sounds of the house rattling in the wind. This is a footstep on the staircase. Slowly you turn, the intellectually curious part of your mind intrigued because the previous two occurrences had transpired immediately upon waking, as if exploiting your drowsiness.

Are the images becoming more pronounced, more invasive?

A man stops at the top of the stairs on seeing you. He is dressed rather commonly in a grey suit over a white shirt and dark grey tie, a fedora upon his head. He is burly, with a jowly face that makes you think of John Diefenbaker if he worked out a bit. He stares at you and you back at him. He seems unsettled by your nonchalance, doesn’t he? But to be fair he’s a less disturbing apparition than you’ve become accustomed to this night.

He reaches inside his jacket and his hand comes out glinting with the metal of a pistol. The figure’s threatening nature is entirely consistent with the others illusions, isn’t it?

“Hokay, you holdink there.” Russian. Another consistency in the waking dreams.

You won’t allow yourself to become panicked as you had before. You are a man of logic after all. “Who are you?” you ask, though you aren’t really sure if these phantoms can interact with you. “Are you a ghost?”

The Russian frowns. “What game is you playink? I ask the questions.” He jerks his gun significantly.

You shrug and turn back to your room, suspecting that allowing yourself to be engaged by the dreams is a distraction, keeping you from figuring out what is going on here. Clearly there is a pattern: Russians. Death. Nuclear War. These are certainly not ghosts in the traditional sense. The mythology around ghosts is that they are echoes of things that were — not things that might be. Yet neither can you really credit this as some sort of foresight. Nuclear War is all too possible — but zombie soldiers seem less credible.

“Stop!” The Russian seems both angry and mystified, doesn’t he? Like he can’t understand your insouciance. Perhaps he is used to a gun being the way he maintains his position in the minds of others. Is it his identity, do you think? Phallic, in a way — not that you want to go all Freudian. If you ignore his gun, does he have nothing left to maintain his ego? He strides impatiently forward upon his bow legs, half striding, half charging toward you.

But an image can’t hurt you, can it? Then you unconsciously touch the bandage on your sun-burned arm and realize there is something at work here you have yet to understand.

Then the Russian raises his pistol and brings it down upon your head. The blow feels like it sends fissures zigzagging down your skull. And as your knees buckle, you sink into black, icy water…

~

It has been said that a failed hypothesis is just as helpful to the advancement of knowledge as a successful one. At least that’s what you tell yourself as you struggle awake, head throbbing even more fiercely than before. You are curled in the corner of your bedroom, your hands bound behind you.

Through the pain and grogginess you feel something else, don’t you? Would that be embarrassment at your erroneous hypothesis?

Clearly the Russian was no dream.

Squinting as much from pain as to avoid betraying that you are awake, you watch as he empties your suitcase onto your unmade bed, scattering your personal affects with indifference and annoyance. Then he looks up, scowling, and catches your stare. He throws your socks aside and steps around the bed, dragging his pistol from out of his waist belt. “You awake — that is good. We talk. You tell me who you are. You American, yes?”

You almost say you were, but decide not to confuse things. “Canadian.” If only to assert some control over a situation over which you so demonstrably have none, you decide to cheekily name the Russian Leo — simply because you had been re-reading Tolstoy the other night.

Leo wobbles his head back and forth like a seesaw. “American. Canadian. Who cares — no difference.”

You almost disagree, but decide this is not the time for a discussion of cultural nuances. As he settles himself on the edge of the bed, behind your back you finger the signet ring your wife gave you. According to her it once belonged to a medieval Alchemist. More practically, it features a small needle-like blade that can be protruded from it. It clicks into place and you begin sawing at your bindings.

“My name is Doctor Conrad Idris — sometimes Doctor Id. I am a guest in this house,” you say this both to cover over any tell-tale tremor he might notice in your shoulders, and because you hope that if you talk, it will encourage him to talk. In a way, it is a kind of word association — only normally such a technique does not involve guns and the possibility of violent death.

The Russian glares at you dully. “You coloured man — you have very bad down in U.S. of A., yes? Water cannons and dogs — bark! bark!,” he suddenly says, jerking forward, chuckling as you jump. Then he relaxes and leans back. “Just because you want no sit at back of buses. In Soviet Union, all are equal. No one sit back or front. Is much better.”

You grimace, realizing he maybe is trying to appeal to you philosophically. Apparently his Kremlin overseers never explained to him that enticement works better when those one seeks to recruit are not tied up on a floor after being clubbed into unconsciousness.

Fingering his gun in a way that does make it seem almost a fetish, he abruptly says: “Tell me about Project: Morphobias.”

For a moment you almost wonder if it’s his accent, because the word seems so nonsensical. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”

He scowls. “Do not think me stupid. We know about Morphobias. We have somethink very much same in my country. Now you take me to where you run it, American — yes?”

“I’m not American,” you say. Not anymore, right? Your mind is whirling, trying to make sense of all this. Whatever the Russian wants, clearly his country didn’t have it — or else he wouldn’t be here, pointing a gun at you. But presumably they are working in the same field.

If only you knew what field that was, eh? And why he thought you knew anything about it. Suddenly it occurs to you that he may not have come here looking for you, personally. Rather — he had come here and finding you, assumed you knew more than you did.

Suddenly the Russian drops to his knees before you, brandishing his gun. Clearly he is done walking softly and it is time for the big stick

Isn’t it lucky you’re also done sawing through your bindings then? As he comes at you, presuming you still helpless, your arm swings around and delivers an open-handed chop to his neck. He gags and immediately you are throwing yourself at him. You keep in shape with regular karate lessons. The key to a sharp mind is to maintain a healthy body — isn’t that right?

Still, being a gifted amateur isn’t quite the same as being a professionally trained Soviet spy. So even as you tackle him to the ground you scramble over him, to get out the door and into the hall. You might have a chance at escaping. Maybe. He’s cursing in Russian, trying to grab at you, but you get to your feet and are almost to the door when your headache flares up again, bile pulsing into the back of your throat.

And has it occurred to you that, despite being clubbed on the head, the headaches had started earlier? In fact, they always seem to presage a hallucination.

The pain is the worst so far. It hits so hard you stumble and twist, hitting the wall with your back, missing the doorway entirely. Leo is on his feet, his fedora mangled on his head. His eyes blaze with fury as he raises his gun.

Suddenly your eyes go wide as you see through the window a mushroom cloud upon the horizon. You start to scream, to warn him — even though he comes at you with murder in his eyes you still try to warn him.

Then your eyes are caught by another figure.

Haltingly you turn to look at the mirror over the room’s sole dresser. Is this part of the illusion? A woman stands there — her reflection at any rate, even though there is no one else in the room but you and Leo. And seeing her pale skin, her raven hair and her sweetly sad smile, you feel as though you’ve been punched in the chest, don’t you? “Agatha?” you whisper.

Then the room is erased in a blinding fire of Atomic glory. The colours are bleached from the walls, then the finer details of the wall paper smear, then it is all swept away until nothing but whiteness surrounds you. Even she has vanished again.

“Agatha!” you scream.

Then the light begins to dull, to fade, until the natural darkness of the room reasserts itself.

You stare at your hands, at your chest — but you are unhurt. You look about the room, but it bears no marks, no singeing. Then you look at the mirror — and see only your face staring back at you.

Heart aching you turn to face Leo — and you let out a startled cry.

The Russian agent is lying doubled over in the middle of the floor, his cheap grey suit just as crumpled as it had been, but otherwise unmarked. But the man himself, and every bit of exposed flesh that you can see, has been burned to a crisp.

How do you rationalize that?

~

You’re dressed — enough with this running about in pyjamas, eh? You aren’t going to be getting any more sleep tonight anyway. Or is that too cheap a joke, given the circumstances?

You think you have some idea as to what is going on, don’t you? Is that why you’ve left poor old Leo’s corpse up in the room while you’ve tramped down to the main floor?

But can you rationalize anything that has happened here tonight? Weird dreams and hallucinations — well, that’s not too hard to explain, is it? As Ebeneezer Scrooge remarked, senses are remarkably easy to disrupt. Except two people shouldn’t share the same hallucination. And illusions shouldn’t burn the back of your hand. But maybe a sunlamp was used as part of a con — that could almost make sense.

But then there’s poor old Leo (isn’t it funny how you can almost regard him with pity now that he’s dead and no longer trying to hurt you?) How do you explain a man being burned to a crisp four paces from you? If the Atomic blast — whether real or imaginary — fried him it should have fried you. And if it didn’t fry you, shouldn’t he still be walking around singing the praises of the Worker’s Paradise?

And how do you explain his suit was unscorched?

But you think you can, don’t you? Because as much as you are a man of science, you are also open to the unusual. Occam’s Razor may state that the simplest answer is usually the truth, but even William of Ockham would doubtless allow that it was only “usually” the case.

You find it at last, don’t you? What you were looking for. Because one thing you realized that was missing in the old house when you checked it over earlier was a basement. Or rather, it was missing any door leading to a basement. But eventually you found it, a false panel in the back of a laundry cupboard. Easy to miss if you weren’t sure it had to be somewhere, eh?

Slowly, almost fearfully, you slide the panel aside and reveal a set of steps leading down. You brace the door open, take a deep breath, and then start down the stairs, feeling like Theseus entering the labyrinth.

Dismounting from the last step you are in a dark tunnel, a rectangle of soft light at one end. As you approach you realize the diffused glow is caused by a plastic sheet drawn over an aperture leading out of the tunnel. You hesitate, your palms sweaty. Then you brush it aside and step through.

Is this what you expected? Were you at least close?

Or is it worse?

It looks like a hospital ward, with beds lining each side of the room. There is the low susurrus hum of machines and the soft, soulless glow of fluorescent bulbs over each bed. A couple of nurses move about the beds. One glances at you, frowning, but clearly uncertain of what to do about your presence. Perhaps she assumes you are allowed to be here. Or perhaps dealing with intruders is simply above her pay grade.

So you press on boldly and stop at the foot of one of the beds. The patient is a child — a boy of 10 or 12 maybe. They are all children. All asleep. Wires are taped to their heads that weave and twist about and disappear into a computer at the head of each bed. You grab the medical chart at the foot of the bed and start flipping through it, assessing pulse and blood pressure rates, blood levels. And, of course, whatever noxious concoction is being used to keep the children in their perpetual slumber.

You move to the boy’s head and, leaning over, whisper something into his ear.

“The Intrepid Doctor Id.”

Unwilling to betray your nervousness, you take a moment to lay the medical chart on the child’s bed, shielding your hand so you can turn a dial on the machine at the head of the bed to its maximum setting. Then you casually turn to face a tall blonde man with a buzz cut. He’s broad shouldered and handsome and wearing a suit that cost at least three times what Leo’s had cost.

“That’s what the papers call you, isn’t it? Doctor Id — The Ghost-Detective?”

At his side is a portly man with thinning hair, dressed in the lab coat of a doctor. Seeing him in that garb, and seeing how this place is such a betrayal of the sacred calling of the healer, you want to throw up. “Would you like to tell me what is going on here?” you ask levelly.

“I’d be more interested in hearing your take,” says the man in the suit. “The fact that you found your way here means you must have some ideas.”

You hesitate, then gesture around you at the sleeping children. “Dream projection — am I right? The apparitions are neither ghosts, nor hallucinations. Rather, they are the nightmares of these children projected directly into unsuspecting minds.” That had been your mistake; you had searched the house for something clumsy like gas jets or projectors. Not something invisible like radio waves. “The process induces headaches but the apparitions themselves have no physical substance. They can’t impact upon the corporeal world — except psychosomatically. Furniture and clothing can’t be damaged, for instance, but human flesh can, because the mind believes.”

Instinctively you touch your burned arm.

The man in the lab coat steps forward, clearly excited to expound upon his achievements. “You know of such theories?” His accent is German, which you realize is not unusual. Many German scientists were gobbled up by the victors after World War II — the Americans call it Operation: Paperclip. The greater their value, the fewer questions asked about their Nazi ties. Considering the extraordinary breakthroughs here — you suspect no questions were asked about his past at all.

“Psychosomatic ailments? Of course. But nothing to this degree. A man died up there — spontaneously combusted because he believed he was caught in a nuclear blast.”

The scientist blanches. “What?” He looks to the bigger man. “Is this true Anderson? We suspected it was possible to take the process to such a degree — but eventually. I did not agree to proceeding to that level yet. Test our project upon tenants in the boarding house, yes. That is why we built our facility here, and then allowed the house to go back on the market — a free and constant source of unsuspecting test subjects that would never be traced to us, since they did not themselves know they were participating in our studies.” He turns back to you as if seeing in you, a fellow scientist, a sympathetic ear. “The potential is incalculable — particularly as it applies to your field. When properly calibrated and refined, my Morphobias process could be used to uncover and treat any number of deep seated neuroses. A psychiatrist could literally experience his patient’s nightmares.”

You can’t entirely hide your disgust, can you? But you save your most withering stare for the man called Anderson. “This is about more than unethical medical experiments — isn’t it? Who are you? American CIA?” A logical inference given Leo was clearly KGB.

“It’s a new kind of war, Doctor Id,” explains Anderson. “A Cold War. Where the battles take place not on battlefields, but in living rooms. What you see here is the most ambitious off-shoot of the CIA’s MKUltra program. You won’t have heard of it but we have people all over working for us, conducting experiments with behaviour modification, mind control — even here in Canada. But the professor’s project puts them all to shame.”

“This is about psychological warfare? Do you intend to flood the streets of Moscow with nightmarish illusions? Assassinate Khrushchev by turning his own mind against him?”

“That certainly has possibilities,” Anderson agrees. But he says it so nonchalantly you shudder, realizing that is, at best, only an afterthought.

What then is the ultimate goal? Why has Anderson and his masters financed and facilitated the professor’s experiments? There is one idea that occurs to you as you recall the suburban development being erected nearby. But in its way, it is almost more horrible. “You — you don’t intend to use this on the Russians, do you? This is for the west, for allies like Canada. For the American people themselves. For God’s sake — why, man?”

“As I said: the Cold War is being fought in living rooms. It’s a war of will. The side that eventually triumphs will be the side that is most afraid. Fear is the great motivator. You’re a psychiatrist, you know that. We have an opportunity here to play upon and exacerbate every nightmare and neuroses in the land. We can subject whole suburbs to disturbing and unsettling dreams. Or we can target individuals. If some newspaper editor starts to get a bit too soft on the Commies, we can blast him with the Morphobias process for a few nights and turn him into a raving paranoid churning out editorials about the danger of the Reds nuking the Midwest. We could get Edward R. Murrow ranting like Joe McCarthy.” Anderson gestures at the sleeping children. “That’s why we chose children. Aside from being able to get them through the orphanage — no one cares about kids who are wards of the state — they have the most vivid imaginations. And they’re the first generation in history to grow up in the shadow of the bomb — they’re seething with anxieties.”

“And where do I fit in? You obviously know who I am.”

Anderson shrugged. “We’re still refining the process. We didn’t intend the experience to be so unsettling it would actually drive people away. We need to figure out a scale of intensity. When I learned the Corbins had recruited you, though, I thought it would make a great test of the more extreme levels. A man of your intellect and reputation would make an exemplary test subject. In fact,” he says, his eyes glinting like ice, “I’m curious how you survived when you say that other fellow was incinerated.”

Tightly, you say: “I just thought wet thoughts.”

Smiling coldly, Anderson pulls a gun. “Come, Doctor. No games. I’m trying to save the free world.”

You feel your heart thump, wondering if this is the end — has Doctor Id finally detected his last ghost? Or can you play for time? “I take it there’s some sort of insulation against the projections? It must be risky transmitting such potent hallucinations literally just above your heads.”

“Yes,” agrees the professor. “We lined the ceiling with polarized rubber that prevents the transmissions from seeping down here-”

“Shut up,” says Anderson, smart enough to recognize he’s missing something. “What’s your point, Doctor Id?”

“Wouldn’t it be a problem if, for instance, someone left a door open upstairs?”

Did you time it so perfectly — are you really that clever? Or is it just a lucky coincidence that as you finish speaking the air is shattered by the clang of a dropped metal tray and one of the nurses screams. Anderson and the professor turn to see shuffling, radioactive zombies come scraping through the plastic curtain that hides the hall that leads to the stairs that rise to the door that you left propped open. You had already deduced much of what you would find here, hadn’t you? That is why you had whispered into that sleeping boy’s ear that radioactive zombies might attack this facility.

As a psychiatrist you understand the potential of subliminal messages and hypnotic suggestions.

“Not here!” screams the professor. “Stop!”

Anderson starts firing at the creatures, his bullets passing harmlessly through them because they do not exist — except in the mind. Shrieking the nurses break and run, heading for a door at the far side of the room. The professor is frozen with horror, screaming. Then his scream sputters to a gagging silence as radiation-burned hands he can feel but not touch close about his throat.

Anderson whirls on you. “You survived — how?” he shouts, pleading.

Even if you had time to explain, Anderson wouldn’t be able to process the information and adopt the principle in time. Is that why you say nothing? Or is it because, Hippocratic Oath or not, you think Anderson deserves his fate?

Seeing no help from you, he turns and starts firing again — still failing to grasp that his bullets are useless. The zombies pour over him and, screaming, he is buried beneath a phantasm of undead avengers.

You’re not out of the woods, are you? Feigning calm you move slowly toward one wall, the zombies staggering toward you. You have set your eye on what looks to be an emergency switch, an orange lever clamped to a big cable running vertically up the wall.

One of the creatures swipes at you — but unlike with Anderson and the professor, it simply passes through you. Emboldened, you grasp the lever and pull down.

The room goes black, then red emergency lights blink on; the subtle hum of machines cease. And all the phantoms vanish instantly — or at least retreat back to the unconscious dreams of the sleeping children.

It’s only then that you let yourself sigh in relief.

Wiping sweat from your eyes you look at the rows of sleeping children, and at the two dead men upon the floor — killed by their own minds. It is funny how the irrational can still overwhelm the rational, isn’t it? They knew better than anyone that the phantoms were not real. Yet faced with the overwhelming horror of them, they still instinctively believed in their power to kill.

As might you have — save you lived through it once.

Leo was killed and you weren’t because you were distracted. An image of your beloved wife had appeared to you and, for just a moment, that idea became your whole world. The blast that killed Leo held no reality for you. And that had shown you the way. The phantoms could only hurt you if you let them; if you had nothing greater to believe in.
Anderson had said fear was humanity’s great motivator. But perhaps love would be its salvation.

Because you are a doctor as well as a ghost-breaker you verify the children are in no immediate danger. Then before you head off to summon the authorities, you realize you should take a few minutes to disable (or otherwise smash) the machines used to drag forth their subconscious nightmares. With the professor dead, and his devices wrecked, hopefully you can prevent this nightmare from being recreated.

As you perform this task do you take a moment to think about what occurred? About the apparition of your beloved Agatha conveniently appearing to you in time to save you from being consumed by your own mind? Perhaps not now, not yet. But later, when you have time to reflect.

You have become a hunter of the bizarre, a debunker of the supernatural, because you are plagued by questions about your dead wife.

Perhaps someday your quest will provide answers. And you will finally hear my voice again…my love.

The End

This story appears — with many others — in the Masques Chronicles, vol. 1. As mentioned, “The Masques Chronicles” is a superhero/comic book-themed collection in prose. So a story like this is a mix of intents: spooky and eerie, at times, but also a bit deliberately cheesy and hokey — starting out a supernatural ghost story…but ending up a mad scientist/sci-fi tale. While also using the plot as an allegory about Cold War paranoia. The 2nd person narration was meant to evoke a style of old comic book horror stories (the chief time I’ve come across the use of 2nd person!) — but it also provided the opportunity for a twist at the end 🙂

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What’s Wrong with the Modern Star Wars Movies! (Hint: it might not be what you think :)

Here’s what’s wrong with the modern Star Wars movies…

Scrreeech! Okay, wait. Maybe that needs to be clarified since Star Wars (and a lot of modern pop culture) has become caught up in toxic fandom and politicized agendas. I didn’t have any particular objection to The Last Jedi’s themes and intent. I know there’s been some “fan” backlash from alt-righters who have leeched onto the franchise as a platform to the point where Last Jedi co-star, Kelly Marie Tran (“Rose”), was especially targeted. And aside from the fact that it is terrible (and unacceptable) that an actor would he harassed just because people didn’t like a movie, I would go one step further and say that in a lot of ways I regard Rose (and Tran) as one of the best things about the new trilogy — both in terms of the character and Tran’s performance. And this will be kind of germane to my point.

I’ll also freely acknowledge that there’s an old man factor at work in my criticism — something I may not be fully cognizant of. That as a middle aged guy I’m not going to respond to the new movies the way I did as a younger viewer to the original film. (Also I’ve seen most of the movies at least twice, but I’m going by memory with some of these references, and maybe I’ve forgotten relevant bits of dialogue).

With all that said: here’s a problem I think I’ve noticed with the new movies and which I haven’t seen much remarked upon (at least in pieces I’ve come across).

A lack of realism.

That might seem like a silly complaint about a movie franchise where human-looking characters exist in a distant galaxy with laser swords and access a mysterious universal force. But bear with me.

I first sort of felt this was an issue with The Force Awakens and the fact that I didn’t really understand how the galaxy was supposed to be set up. Maybe this was partly because I had gone into it thinking the rebels had essentially won at the end of The Return of the Jedi, and I was aware there had been decades of post-movies novels and comics chronicling the rise of the New Republic. I had assumed the movie would begin with the Republic in place and the remnants of the Empire re-arising. Instead — it’s not really clear what’s going on. The First Order already seems to have fleets and ships and uniformed troops — hardly a covert insurgency — and the heroes were already being identified as “the Resistance.” So did that mean the rebels hadn’t really achieved anything by the end of Return of the Jedi and have just been fighting the Empire for the last thirty years or so? Jeez — that’s depressing. Except the bad guys are called the First Order, implying some sort of demarcation between the villains of the original trilogy and the new movies. And the planetary home of the Resistance didn’t exactly seem to be a secret in the movie. And the First Order didn’t really seem to operate as a government — more just doing a lot of strafing and raiding.

Then in The Last Jedi the Resistance even talks about trying to summon their “allies” — which again means what exactly?

To be honest it kind of feels like the makers of the new movies are just throwing together a lot of terms, trying to recapture the old movies (swapping “Resistance” for “Rebels”), without any real regard for, or interest in, the nitty gritty of world building.

I also remember feeling in The Force Awakens I was having trouble picturing the geography of this galaxy. Like how could the Resistance get word the bad guys are going to blow them up with their super-laser, mount a counter-plan, and fly all the way out to where the laser was — all while the bad guys were still apparently just priming their laser (I’m old enough to remember when it took a few seconds for the TV to warm up but this is ridiculous!) Not to mention how did the Resistance get word of the bad guys plan? Did they have spies on the bad guys’ planet? If so — did those spies get blowed up real good when the Resistance blewed up the planet? (That’s not even getting into the fact that the heroes blew up an entire planet with an ecosystem — something which, y’know, I thought only evil people were supposed to do!)

Again, I can’t help thinking the response from the filmmakers would be: who cares?

(Now to be fair, this may be an example of old me vs young me, because the original movies certainly played around with our perception of time. Notably in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke somehow squeezes weeks of Jedi training into the time it takes for Han & Leia to flee Hoth and get captured by Darth Vader!)

But arguably part of the appeal of the earlier Star Wars films was precisely this attention to world building. Heck — George Lucas kind of went overboard on that in the prequel movies where there just seemed a lot of endless talk about trade embargoes and midichlorians and all sorts of gobbledygook that probably had many of us banging our fists into our heads saying “Is this going to be on the exam, Mr. Lucas Sir?”

But even in the original movies, when Lucas demonstrated more restraint, he was clearly trying to craft a sense of an actual galaxy. Heck, Lucas even takes time out from all the swashbuckling and daring-do to have a scene where the Imperial bad guys discuss, essentially, infrastructure. When told the Emperor has disbanded the senate, one Imperial asks how’s that going to work, administration-wise? And he’s told the local governors can assume governing responsibility. That’s completely irrelevant to the rest of the film, and as a kid watching it for the first time, I’m sure I didn’t consciously care — but a moment like that helps ground the fantasy, making it feel like there’s a real galaxy, with real, mundane matters to be dealt with. The Imperials may be ruthless, tyrannical, genocidal baddies…but at least they were making sure the weekly garbage pick-ups weren’t being disrupted.

I’m not sure you get the impression the First Order is doing much more than flash-raids and playing at being galactic dictators.

(Which, admittedly, might have been the point: the First Order essentially the equivalent of Tiki-torch wielding cosplaying alt-right fascists).

A example of this idea of world building in the original Star Wars — subtly and by implication — is the scene where Luke and Ben first meet Han Solo. First: we are told Han is a Corellian. That means nothing to us, the viewer, but establishes that he didn’t just spring to life in a Mos Eisley cantina. Han then acts shocked they haven’t heard of the Millennium Falcon, explaining that it made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs and can outrun Imperial cruisers. And not just the local jobbies, we are assured, but Corellian cruisers. All of which…means nothing to the viewer. But we understand the intent (establishing it’s a fast ship) and letting us glimpse a galaxy much bigger than what’s in the camera frame, a universe we can partly fill in with our own imagination. As a kid I wasn’t sure if Corellian cruisers meant Corellia was famous for its shipyards, or whether it meant Corellia was an unruly system and needed the fastest Imperial ships to police it. (No doubt this has been thoroughly explained in various novels and such, but my point is what was said on the screen).

The original movie has other oblique references (such as to the Clone Wars) that hint at a bigger galaxy and history than is contained in the scenes themselves.

And I’m just not sure — at least as processed by my middle-aged brain — that there’s any equivalent “world building” (through casual asides and cryptic reference) in the new movies.

Which then brings us to the characters in the old movies versus the new movies.

In the original Star Wars the characters were very much defined by who they were before the movie even began: farmboy, princess, freighter captain/smuggler. Luke, for instance, we know has friends in town, is a farmer, dreams about getting away and becoming a pilot, etc. One could easily imagine an alternate universe where they never joined the rebellion and lived different lives, because they were already living those lives. The rebellion wasn’t their lives — the rebellion was the thing that tore them away from their lives. Likewise, in the prequel movies, Anakin is very much shaped and influenced by who he was before.

Yet the new movies seem almost conspicuous in crafting characters who barely exist outside of the central narrative. Rey’s introduction mirrors Luke’s (desert dweller who finds a droid and gets whisked away to adventure). But it’s hard to imagine what her life would’ve been like if she hadn’t found the droid, because her life barely seems defined to begin with. She’s a character waiting in the wings for her cue to come on stage (she’s literally waiting for her parents to return — despite being in her twenties). Meanwhile Finn has a more dramatic backstory — raised as a Stormtrooper! But it seems to exist as a way of not having to deal with his backstory; there’s nothing in his affable character that seems like he’s supposed to be a traumatized ex-child soldier raised in a fascist state. Instead, Finn is essentially “born” when he pulls off his helmet at the beginning of TFA. And then there’s Poe who’s simply a Resistance soldier with no sense of what he was before he joined the Resistance (or, to use my earlier thought experiment, what he might be doing with his life if he hadn’t joined the Resistance).

(And I realize that there have probably been Star Wars novels and comics that have filled in the characters more — but I’m going by what I recall from the movies).

Part of the reason I said Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose was one of the best things about the new movies is because she provides us a glimpse of a world that exists outside of the movies, the character having (had) a sister, and talking about her life before she joined. You can kind of believe in Rose as a person in the way you could Luke and Leia and Han. (And Tran’s performance nicely combines the needs of creating a believable character with the larger-than-life swashbuckling, “gee whiz” tone of Star Wars, in a way some of the actors don’t pull off quite as well).

This lack of believable backstory is perhaps especially conspicuous in the new movies’ villain, Kylo Ren. I mean, given he is the chief villain, and his actions and motives have dramatic impact upon other characters (Rey, Luke, Leia, Han, etc.) I’m not really sure what his motive is. Indeed, Kylo Ren breaks one of the first rules of writing-the-villain in that writers often tell you the villain never thinks of himself as the villain. But in Kylo’s case — he absolutely does. He wants to be the bad guy. But — why? Why did he fixate on his dead grandfather and decide he wanted to go all dark side? I mean, say what you will about problems with the prequel trilogy, but give Lucas credit that he tried to craft them as a character study, chronicling how a basically decent little boy grows up to become the ultimate baddie in the galaxy.

But Kylo Ren? Apparently all we need to know is he was just born bad. Which seems a rejection of the earlier movies’ themes which, however awkwardly and perhaps shallowly articulated, seemed interested in the ideas of corruption and redemption and how people are shaped by the choices they make and why they make them.

Indeed, the lack of convincing backstories in the modern movies is so conspicuous, I’d almost wonder if it was deliberate. As if maybe they’re going to build to a startling twist in the third movie where in the final scene Rey, Finn, Kylo, and Po wake up to discover they are actually just Star Wars fans attending a Comi-Con convention who were testing a prototype Star Wars V/R game.

I suppose you could say a difference between the modern movies and the earlier ones is that the original movies were creators trying to create a fantasy world, whereas the modern movies are, by necessity, a kind of fan-fiction, made by filmmakers who want to play with their childhood toys. (Perhaps reflected in how the movies recycle the earlier films: The Force Awakens follows a similar plot to Star Wars (A New Hope) and The Last Jedi can be mapped onto the plot of The Empire Strikes Back).

You could argue this fanboy-ishness is demonstrated in how the movies deal with history and legacy — a kind of iconoclasm versus idolatry.

Remember my earlier focusing on that scene where Luke & Ben first meet Han & Chewie? Another interesting quirk about it is that Luke & Ben don’t really seem to know what Han is talking about. Han is peeved that they haven’t heard of his ship or know the significance of a fast Kessel Run — which ironically adds to a sense of realism. Han is a pilot who presumably hangs out with other pilots so all his friends know this stuff — but Luke & Ben are a farmer who knows tech related to his life (droids, land speeders) and an old hermit who has probably been out of the cosmic loop for years. Han is the equivalent of a videogamer all excited about the latest Final Fantasy release and is flummoxed by non-gamers who respond saying: “Oh, you mean like Space Invaders?” What’s important in Han’s circle is barely trivia in Luke & Ben’s circles.

This separation between areas of knowledge is especially highlighted when it comes to history. The Jedi Knights were wiped out barely a generation ago — and already their legacy is fading into obscurity. Luke doesn’t even know what a lightsabre is, nor has he heard of “The Force,” while Han repeatedly mocks Ben and his beliefs (calling him a “fossil” at one point). Likewise even Darth Vader is mocked by his fellow Imperials for his belief in the Force. Is twenty odd years really enough time for those things to fade from the public memory so much? I think you’d be surprised the responses you got if you asked people twenty years your junior about people, events, and technology from your youth (or equally, talk to someone older than you and see how many references they make you don’t get).

Star Wars was perhaps influenced both by George Lucas’ love of nostalgia (Lucas freely admitting Star Wars was an homage to old movie serials) but also, presumably, the post hippy-era when a generation deliberately turned their backs on the older generation — and their culture. Star Wars is both a paean to a Golden Age and a recognition that the past becomes…past.

(Now all this becomes muddled a bit by the subsequent films, when Darth Vader goes from being a sad relic to the Emperor’s right hand and belief in The Force seems far more prevalent than it did in the first movie).

But with the newer movies, this recognition of how quickly times change and how easily the past gets forgotten is pushed aside. Even though it’s (arguably) been a longer time-span between the current movies and the original films than it was between the original movies and the prequels, little seems to have changed (even if, as I mentioned earlier, it’s unclear how the Resistance/Rebels and the New Order/Empire relate to each other). Leia is even still leader! When Rey and Finn meet Han it is with awestruck recognition, and he assures them “the stories” are all true. You half expect Rey to pull out her “Rebel Alliance” trading cards and ask Han to sign the one with all his stats on the back.

If this had been the first movie, you’d probably expect the younger characters to not even know who the older characters are. But in the new movies — they are enduring legends recognizable by people 30 years their junior. And this gets back to my point about the new movies made by fans, eager to play with old toys. The audience knows who these older characters are, therefore so do the younger characters.

Of course this may all be nonsense. As I mentioned near the beginning, I’m considerably older now than when I saw Star Wars as a wee kiddie during a heat wave in 1977. Kids need less to fuel their imagination — adults need considerably more. I don’t lose myself in movies they way I did decades ago, and so it’s fair to say there’s nothing the current movies could do that would make them comparable for me to seeing the original Star Wars back in the day.

Still, I think my points have some validity, analyzing the different ways the original trilogy and the current movies approach world building, characterization, and continuity. And, indeed, highlight ways you can build a fantasy/SF world not with massive info-dumps and explanations, but with coy hints and glimpses that let the audience imagine a world just out of sight.

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Behind-the-Scenes: “Glimpsing Samson” (My Story in Imps & Minions)

I have a story in the new anthology, Imps & Minions (from tdotSpec). Edited by Don Miasek, K.M. McKenzie, and David F. Shultz, Imps & Minions is a speculative fiction collection (running the gamut of science fiction and fantasy) using as its unifying theme stories about and/or from the perspective of henchmen and villains’ sidekicks.

I used to be a bit reticent about writing stories for a specific publication’s theme. From a purely pragmatic POV, if the story failed to make the cut, I’d be stuck with a story possibly too niche and idiosyncratic to send out to general publications. But there can by a fun creative challenge in setting out to write a story to fit certain parameters (and equal fun in seeing how you can push and test the boundaries of those parameters). Of course it helped that I’ve had some success selling to such specific markets recently.

Anyway…so I decided to try my luck and write something for Imps & Minions.

But because it’s a bit of a crap shoot getting accepted (submitting anything is, but especially when it’s for a specific theme) I decided I’d write as much for myself as for the selection editors. Imps & Minions’s guidelines said they were open to a variety of speculative fiction genres — from High Fantasy of elves and demons, to Hard SF of aliens and robots.

So I decided to write a story set within the idiom of…superheroes.

Now the thing is: I like writing about superheroes. I’ve discovered at this stage of my life that it may be my favourite genre (or sub-genre) to write in. I suspect most writers have favourite sub-genres or themes. The horror writer who writes stories variously about monsters and serial killers and demonic possession and so on — but whose passion is writing haunted house stories. The SF writer who writes techno-thrillers and far future speculation and first contact stories — but really loves writing about robots. Etc. I’ve written (and had published) stories of SF, fantasy, and horror, in various of their off-shoots and sub-genres — stories I like and am proud of — but having grown up reading comics, in a weird way, I think I feel most comfortable writing within the superhero milieu.

I kind of regard superheroes as the great narrative onion — there are so many layers you can peel back. Most short stories have two or three layers, but superhero stories can have five or six.

So once I had the anthology’s theme (henchmen and villain’s sidekicks) and I had selected my idiom (superheroes) the story itself unfolded fairly quickly before my mind’s eye.

Called “Glimpsing Samson,” it looks at the world of superheroes and supervillains from the perspective of a minor sideplayer — in this case Solomon and his brother Zeke who are a couple of petty crooks (Solomon, the narrator, ambivalent about this life-of-crime) who find themselves draw into the orbit of supervillainy, slowly pulled deeper and deeper into that world. Viewed one way: it’s a low-key story about family loyalty and moral choices. Viewed another way: it’s an outlandish tale quirkily exploring the conventions of comic book super-folks from the perspective of the (normally) nameless figures on the peripheries.

I used the analogy of a “narrative onion” earlier, talking about “layers” — and one of those layers can be a winking nod at the conventions of the genre while (hopefully) telling an accessible, stand alone story. So as the brothers find themselves moving from gang to gang we also get a sense of the different strata of supervillains, from light-weight baddies like The Sudoku Sultan (my riffing on “gimmick” Old School villains like The Riddler, but imagining what a modern variation might be) to increasingly powerful and dangerous characters. Along the way we get glimpses of the spectrum of superhero archetypes, too.

The story juggles being both serious, but also wryly quirky, cognizant of the inherent absurdity of the superhero milieu; character-focused while also giving a sense of a bigger world; told in little scenes and moments while slowly unfolding a plot that drives us toward a climax; having a bit of action, some thrills, some plot twists, while also having some emotion. And most of all, being a fun, enjoyable read. As I say: layers.

Does it actually accomplish any of that? Or is it a turgid slog to get through? Obviously only you can judge that for yourself. Hopefully if you do buy Imps & Minions you’ll also post your opinion on the book (and maybe my story, for better or worse) on Amazon, or Goodreads, or your own blog, or Twitter feed, or wherever.

Seriously — it can’t be stressed enough how much word-of-mouth (or keyboard) is important to a book’s profile…and to the writers.

Now when writing “Glimpsing Samson” it required caulking up the corners with a sense of an existing superhero universe. After initially considering creating superheroes for this story, I decided it would be easier to simply draw upon pre-existing ideas I had. You see, as I mentioned I really like writing superhero stories (having had stories appear in the anthologies Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories and Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe). I liked it so much, I ended up writing a whole slew of stories set within my own (Canadian) superhero universe — even though I knew there was next to no likelihood I could find a publisher for them. It was a purely creative exercise driven by a need to pursue a muse. So when I was writing “Glimpsing Samson” I decided to simply draw upon that pre-existing universe — my Masques universe (the term I coined for superheroes — specifically Canadian superheroes). When “Glimpsing Samson” required superheroes to make brief appearances (or get referenced) I made them, in essence, “guest” appearances.

So in “Glimpsing Samson” we have appearances by a character called The Beaver, and allusions to another character called Confederation Man (both Canadian allusions if ya didn’t know). In the context of “Glimpsing Samson” they are peripheral, enigmatic figures — but they are also central figures in their own stories in The Masques Chronicles (specifically Vol. 2). The Beaver in a story called “The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle” and Confederation Man in a story called “Rumours of Glory.” So essentially “Glimpsing Samson” could be seen as a story taking place within my “Masques Universe.”

A little peek at how this universe thing works: in “Glimpsing Samson” there’s a supervillain who’s a hyper-intelligent, talking polar bear called Professor Polar (I direct you back to my point about superhero stories having layers, including where the gritty and realist rubs shoulders with the absurd and whimsical). In the story we are told Professor Polar is from an alternate dimension and is Confederation Man’s arch foe. Nothing more is said about that, in large part because it’s irrelevant to the story of Solomon and Zeke that is being told here. However in the Confederation Man story in The Masques Chronicles, Vol. II, we are told that Confederation Man himself originally hails from another dimension so — ah hah! — we can then speculate about whether they come from the same dimension. (Whether we’ll ever learn the truth or falsehood of that inference only time will tell, depending on whether I can get enough people reading these stories to want to read more). I should stress: this is irrelevant to “Glimpsing Samson” and is unnecessary to enjoying the story (it’s more in the way of an Easter Egg, to use the DVD term).

Oh, I hear you mutter: The Beaver? Confederation Man? Aren’t those kind of silly names?

Well — yeah. But that’s my point about the inherent absurdity of superheroes. Superheroes are all about leaning into the absurdity and seeing if you can persuade your readers to suspend disbelief enough to take it seriously. I mean “Captain America,” “Spider-Man,” and “The Flash” are kind of silly names — except that we’re used to them by now. (Part of the point of my Masques Chronicles experiment was to imagine a generations spanning superhero universe ala Marvel or DC, picturing a world where we grew up with Canadian superheroes — and themes — being as ubiquitous as American ones).

Which brings me to my plug/plea: if you enjoy “Glimpsing Samson” in Imps & Minions why not delve deeper in my Masques Universe by buying one (or both) of my Masques Chronicles collections (or my other superhero-themed collection, The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun — or, indeed, any of my books)? The stories in The Masques Chronicles are more squarely “superhero” stories — with the heroes front and centre, and the stories revolving around adventure, thrills, and mysteries. At this point I’m not really expecting to make any money off them — but I’d love people to post some reviews, just to know what they thought of them (for good or ill). They were labours of love and yet I still haven’t a clue as to how readers react to them (I have a couple of books with 5 out of 5 ratings on Goodreads — which is pretty sweet — but even those don’t actually include any comments).

(One day I’ll maybe relate the frustrating story about how a legitimate publisher seemed all excited about publishing my Masques Chronicles — a real publisher, with a real distribution network. But after trading e-mails back and forth for, literally, months — the editor constantly reassuring me that they were eager to work with me and that it was going to happen — it became obvious to me that, um, it wasn’t. To this day I don’t know what was going on: whether he was just stringing me along for some nefarious reason, or whether there were problems behind the scenes that derailed some of their publishing plans. But it was disheartening, I can tell you).

Anyway, go out and buy Imps & Minions — exposing you to the works of a myriad of writers (no doubt many far more talented than me — and I might write more about the book once I’ve had a chance to read it myself). But, maybe, if you’ve got the inclination, also consider buying some of my books (if only to learn who The Beaver is, or what brooding secret motivates Confederation Man).

Above all: post reviews. Even more than money, writers (and publishers) need word-of-mouth, feedback, etc. (I mean, yeah, writers need the money, too, but in order to build a readership we need people talking about the work first!)

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Behind-the-Scenes: “The Devil’s Fokker”

So I have a story published at Crimson Streets – the pulp-flavoured webzine. It’s called The Devil’s Fokker — which, y’know, you have to be careful how you pronounce (snicker) (a Fokker is a World War I German airplane…but you probably knew that).

Funnily enough, another story I was fortunate enough to have placed with Crimson Streets was also a war-time story with a devil reference: Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion (and which had its own Behind-the-Scenes blog post here). I don’t actually write that many stories with war settings, and when I do they tend to fall under the category of “Weird War” stories…ones that involve the supernatural and monsters and the like.

The Devil’s Fokker is about a WW I RAF air ace who finds himself in the struggle of his life when he encounters an enemy fighter who is clearly more than human (or less than, depending on your theological perspective). I mean, there’s hopefully more to the story than that: a few plot twists and turns, some unexpected alliances, etc. – some of the story taking place on the ground. But as always I don’t want to give too much away in the hopes you’ll click over to Crimson Streets and read it. But hopefully it’s exciting, eerie, maybe a little thoughtful, unapologetically over-the-top, and, of course, pulpy.

This was actually a story I first wrote a while ago, after being invited (yes – me!) to contribute to an up-coming magazine. Unfortunately the magazine never got off the ground and I was left with a pulp-adventure mash-up of dog fights and the supernatural with very few venues seeming open to that kind of material. Fortunately, Crimson Streets was. (Something worth noting: I’ve sold a few stories in the last few years that I had written earlier because I finally found a market that was open to whatever idiosyncratic niche my story was attempting to fill). I did edit the story down to fit the word limit, which was a bit tricky because in a way there’s a lot going on (I think of it less as a “short” story and more like a movie squeezed into a few thousand words). Hopefully I didn’t mangle too many sentences in the process.

I did a bit of research for the story. That is, once I had the idea of the story in my head I did a bit of cursory research on planes and terminology. Not a lot, of course. It is a pulp adventure story with supernatural elements so, y’know, it’s mostly meant to be entertainment rather than an essay. It’s nice if a period story has at least a veneer of verisimilitude – but I’m not a fan (as a reader or as a writer) of throwing in gobs of technical exposition just so the writer can show how much they know about a topic. A casual line, a passing reference, is usually the best kind of technical detail – just enough to, hopefully, insert the reader into the setting, but nothing more.

Probably the biggest influence on the story was the old Enemy Ace comic book stories by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. Not the supernatural element (of which there was little in Enemy Ace) but the sense of almost surrealist isolation, the underlining vibe of melancholy, and most especially Kubert’s dynamic visualization of aerial dog fights. My hope was to evoke with the written word the sense of planes rolling and diving and generally putting the reader on the edge of their seats in the airborne scenes.

Did I succeed? Fail? Decide for yourself by reading…The Devil’s Fokker. The story even has a striking illustration by L.A. Spooner. (And even if you’re not interested in my tale, Crimson Streets offers stories that run the pulpy gamut from noirish crime to horror to adventure and more, so it’s still worth a visit).

And since I mentioned my occasional forays into Weird War stories, you can also check out Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion (about a commando unit made up of WW II superheroes who encounter a monster) and the Twilight Zone-esque Pvt. Parker, Missing in Action (at Strange Horizons). Also my e-books The Masques Chronicles, vol. 1 and The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun Omnibus, which feature superhero stories set on the Canadian homefront during WW II.

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A review of “Beyond: The Quest for Meadan”

A review:

Beyond: The Quest for Meadan 2015 (SC TPB) 64 pages

Written by Richard Comely, Jacqueline St. Aubin, Jean-Claude St. Aubin. Illustrated by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, George Freeman.

This collection includes new material, plus reprints stories originally published in Captain Canuck (1st series) #9-12, 14

The comic book medium is full of sagas that get resolved in somewhat compromised circumstances. Perhaps the creative team departs a story in mid stream, leaving it for another writer to bring it to a resolution (perhaps with only the vaguest idea where the original writer had been headed) — or perhaps the dangling threads of a cancelled series are tied up in an entirely different character’s comic.

Which brings us to…Beyond!

Okay, not exactly up there in the annals of “unfinished classics,” perhaps. Beyond was a sword & sorcery series occupying the back pages of the Canadian super hero comic, Captain Canuck, toward the end of that series’ early 1980s run. In a deliberate contrast to the super hero/sci-fi flavour of the lead series, Beyond was Hugh Fantasy and its serialized saga was left unfinished by Captain Canuck’s then-cancelation.

Jump ahead over thirty years and Captain Canuck himself has been revived by Chapterhouse Comics, a Canadian comic book publisher attempting to shoulder its way into the market with a multitude of titles and properties. A multitude which includes this graphic novel/TPB — Beyond: The Quest for Meadan — which collects the original chapters from Captain Canuck, an unpublished instalment intended for Captain Canuck’s 15th issue…and 15 brand new pages to wrap up the storyline.

Now before I get into the proper review, I should provide full disclosure. Reading the collection’s introduction by writer Richard Comely, I came upon a weirdly familiar passage — and then I realized it was familiar because I wrote it! Yup! I’m quoted in the book (from an entry on Beyond I wrote for my Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). Talk about…surreal. (Occasionally people have cited me in on-line articles, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been quoted in print before).

Anyhoo…onward…

Beyond stands as a mixed bag — both in terms of the original material, and in terms of this collection. For one thing, you have to consider it in terms of its original presentation as a short back up series. Beyond was a quirky and impressive tour de force of imagination — not just in terms of super hero comics, but even in comparison to the (few) fantasy comics around at the time (such as Conan, Doug Moench’s Weirdworld stories, and a few others). However collected here it can feel a bit abrupt at times — with sometimes clumsily expositional dialogue as it rushes breathlessly from one plot twist to another. It’s best read like a collection of some old newspaper adventure strip, recognizing the goal was just to keep the pages flipping. (It’s good they maintained the original chapter breaks rather than editing them into a seamless “graphic novel,” as it reminds the reader the story was meant to unfold episodically).

Beyond threw together errant knights, pan-like goat men, armoured pig-men (called, appropriately, pigmees), evil wizards, man-eating giants, and other bizarre creatures, told with a mixture of serious drama and tongue-in-cheek silliness, of action-adventure heroics and fairytale logic (including characters undergoing mysterious metamorphoses). It was Lord of the Rings by way of Alice in Wonderland.

The saga begins abruptly with the village of Meadan swallowed by mysterious darkness, leaving only three survivors: Lady Elodil, the beautiful, strong-willed lady warrior — interesting both in (A) that she’s a fighter at a time when fantasy heroines tended either to be damsels in distress or, on the opposite extreme, hyper-aggressive she-devils-with-a-sword and (B) she’s a black woman in a genre not exactly known for racial diversity; Fen, a more demure girl; and Rion, the cynical pan-like goat man. And they immediately encounter the wise dwarf Sanydynar and the knight, Sir Brant — the latter struck blind by the same evil that stole the trio’s village. The five set off to confront Ghi-Baal, the evil wizard responsible for their misfortunes.

And it just gets weirder from there.

Visually I can’t say enough about the original chapters. Drawn by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, whose contribution to the main Captain Canuck series was mostly as inker, colourist, letterer, etc., on Beyond he showed he was no slouch with a pencil…nor in the imagination department. And versatile, to boot. St. Aubin was there for the heroic archetypes of Sir Brant and Lady Elodil…and the whimsy of snail men and weird monsters…and the intersection of the two with the pigmees who somehow managed to be comically absurd and yet also serious and expressive. (And there was even an unusual hyper-realism to some of it: Brant, with his salad-bowl haircut, bristly mustache, and finely rendered armour and mail, looked like he’d actually stepped out of the Middle Ages rather than being re-conceived for contemporary fashions). And all of it was set against this fantasy landscape (I’ve often said that visuals are more important to creating mood in fantasy comics than in conventional super hero comics). And there was some interesting composition — such as the landscape broken across multiple panels that opens chapter two, to the stylish arrangement detailing Brant and Elodil’s almost-kiss in chapter four, to the way the pages are broken into two parallel sequences in chapter three. Sometimes short-chapter comics encourage narrative experimentation to make the most of the fewer pages, such as is seen most famously in Will Eisner’s the Spirit or Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter.

And let’s not forget the rich colour. Sure, it can seem a bit muddy in spots (especially in this reprinting) but it was ground-breaking stuff at the time. Go ahead, compare and contrast it with any Marvel or DC comic from that era and you’ll see what I mean.

But over-praising a story can be just as damning as criticizing it (by raising expectations too high). So I reiterate the series had its short-comings, too — at least in part a result of trying to cram a lot into limited pages.

There’s also a big problem, not with the original stories — but with how Chapterhouse has represented them. Namely: pages are missing from the original stories! The final two pages are missing from the opening chapter (which as it was only eight pages to begin with means 25% has been cut!). This is the most glaring omission as it makes for a confusing cut to chapter two — it also loses, arguably, an important line in defining the relationships when Sanydynar remarks the mismatched group is meshing together like a team. Page 6 is missing from chapter two — its omission hurts the flow of the story less, but it was a nice action page establishing Lady Elodil as Sir Brant’s equal in a fight. And the last page is missing from chapter four — a revelatory splash page where we first see Vertibas (a character for whom they had been questing). Why these pages were cut — I don’t know. Was it an editorial decision? (If so, they were poor ones) Was it simply goofs in assembling the pages for reprinting? Or were they cut for space consideration? (The TPB includes house ads, character profiles, and a map…most of which could’ve been cut to allow for more story pages). Given this was a collection some 35 years in the making, and its success (or failure) would determine whether new adventures of Beyond get the greenlight, you’d think they’d take a bit more care.

Anyway, on with my review of the material itself…

The original Beyond saga stopped in mid-plot — with one chapter completed but unpublished, and the rest of the story unwritten. Now, decades later that lost chapter has been included, plus with a brand new 15 page conclusion written by Richard Comely and illustrated by George Freeman.

Unfortunately, this is where things get problematic. Both men have a legitimate claim to the series — Comely scripted the first few chapters, and Freeman acted as editor. But I think there’s no doubt St. Aubin was a driving creative force (and his wife, Jacqueline, assumed the scripting from Comely). But neither of the St. Aubins seem to be involved with these new pages. And the original story was conceived over three decades ago anyway. In short: I suspect Comely & Freeman might be coming at the material with only a vague memory of what was intended originally.

At least it feels that way. The story moves in directions that don’t entirely seem consistent with what went before. And instead of keeping the focus on this intimate little band, the story expands to make it part of some bigger conflict of armies (perhaps to give the climax more of an epic feel). Conversely, maybe Comely & Freeman did remember where the story was headed…and maybe are cramming material into their fifteen pages that was meant to be developed over more pages (in chapter six, a passing reference is made to a missing good wizard named Argos — yet they find him with little effort in the concluding section).

And by the end, it feels like some things aren’t really explained. I wonder if that’s because they wanted to leave things still dangling for a sequel. Or maybe I’m just dense. In the end Rion says he still doesn’t understand why they were spared when Meadan vanished and is cryptically told: “You haven’t figured that out yet?” I can’t decide if that was supposed to be enigmatic or whether they assumed the explanation was obvious.

Plus Freeman’s art lacks the dynamic composition of St. Aubin’s pages (Freeman using a lot of medium and long shots). That may be due to trying to cram a lot into the limited pages — or possibly a stylistic choice, perhaps aiming for the reserved elegance of someone like P. Craig Russell. I mean, it’s still attractive work (I am, after all, in general a George Freeman fan).

The result is a mixed bag. The new conclusion at least allows the story to be a story (no one would’ve reprinted it as an “unfinished saga”). But after over three decades, it can feel a bit disappointing. But this is hardly unique to Beyond. As I began this review saying: there’s a long history of this in comics, often to equally mixed effects (an example that jumps to mind is Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes brilliantly enigmatic Omega the Unknown given a fairly conventional conclusion penned by Steven Grant; or even Jack Kirby’s attempted conclusion to his own New Gods saga 15 years later with the Hunger Dogs).

And maybe I bring that three decade baggage with me. To a modern reader, reading this for the first time as a single volume, it’s an enjoyable romp full of whimsy and imagination. And while I may quibble about the climax — it’s certainly briskly-paced and with lots of action. And it’s probably especially fun for younger readers, the saga having a pleasing “All-Ages” vibe.

SPOILER TIME: Mostly I write reviews for people who haven’t read a book (but are thinking about it) but equally I like to expound on things for those as have read it, and are interested in someone else’s take. So I just wanted to comment on the “new” ending to the saga and the choices Comely et al made and how they line up with what was implied before.

For one thing, chapter three seems to end with the pigmees breaking with Ghi-Baal, hinting at complications to come…but for the conclusion the pigmees are once again loyal to Ghi-Baal. Meanwhile Sanydynar is revealed to be a villain in disguise, which was certainly foreshadowed in earlier chapters. However I wonder if the original plan was to have him be revealed as Ghi-Baal himself, rather than as simply someone working for Ghi-Baal (the incongruous shadow Sanydynar casts — page 3, panel 3, chapt. six — looks like Ghi-Baal’s silhouette). Which might have made for a better revelation (rather than throwing in a whole new element in the climax). A mystery throughout the saga is why Ghi-Baal targeted Meadan in the first place…the implication being there was something significant about the town; a theory further reinforced by Ghi-Baal’s seeming fixation on capturing Elodil, Fen and Rion (townfolk) but seeming to have less interest in Sir Brant (a passer-by). And given Fen’s mysterious metamorphoses, and Elodil’s equally unexplained manifestation (though it’s unclear from the visuals if she changes, or she animates inanimate objects) I wondered if the point would be the town was some wellspring of magical energy that Ghi-Baal was trying to tap — perhaps he had to eliminate the town in order to access its magic, but so long as anyone from the town was free, they would inherit the energy (hence why Fen and Elodil suddenly find themselves exhibiting magical abilities they didn’t previously possess). And despite the romantic tension hinted at between Elodil and Brant, nothing comes of it in the end. All of this is neither here nor there. Just me idly musing on ways the story could’ve gone (and might well have been intended to go, if not for the unintended three decade hiatus).

END SPOILERS.

I should just throw in a personal plug. Part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my graphic novel review website) is also for a bit of self-promotion. I’ve put together a few collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m thinking if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of Beyond (a Captain Canuck back up feature) you might be the sort of person interested in my stories. So — plug, plug. I put the collections together but have had some curious and weird reactions to them. This included a Canadian comic book publisher who expressed interest in publishing my stories and with whom I traded e-mails for months, the editor repeatedly assuring me they were definitely going to publish them…until it became obvious to me that nothing was going to happen (and I still don’t know what was going on behind-the-scenes). Anyway, I’m still trying to reach that magic sales number where people start posting reviews (’cause I’m really interested in knowing how people react to the stories). Anyway…that’s me throwing in a little “ad” for my books.

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My Story in Strange Economics

Now and then, in the name of self-promotion, I dig a little behind-the-scenes into some story I’ve recently had published. I initially did this to promote my superhero book collections (plug-plug) but I also write about stories published elsewhere. Depending on your interest in writers writing about writing, these pieces may be boring…or they may pique your curiosity to seek out the tales in question.

So, today: “Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel” which appears in the recently published SF anthology Strange Economics (an Ichythosaur is a pre-historic sea beastie, but I’m guessing you know that).

Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel is actually a story I wrote a few years ago. You know how some writers say you should keep sending a story out, even if it gets rejected? And how, deep down inside, you figure that’s probably stupid, because if it keeps getting rejected it must not be very good? Well, I guess sometimes the advice is correct. After all, each rejection just represents someone’s opinion, nothing more. Heck, I’ve had stories that have been rejected multiple times, but which various editors will tell me would’ve made the final cut if they had had one extra slot in the publication, or once or twice I’ve been told there were “heated” arguments among the editors in defence of my story. The demarcation between being published and being rejected can be, it seems, gossamer thin at times.

Of course if you’re going to keep sending a story out, despite multiple rejections, it helps if there aren’t any egregious issues with it (ie: if multiple editors cite the same flaws it probably behooves you to listen to ’em) and, equally important, that you like and believe in the story yourself. Which is the case with Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel (admittedly, I partly just dug the title!).

Sometimes it can just be a matter of finding the right niche, the publication/editor who is looking for that thing you were doing. In fact, Have Ichthyosaur was actually the second story I found a home for after years of rejection within the last twelve months, in part because a publication was looking for something particular (that other story was the fantasy tale “The Maiden’s Path” which finally saw print in Lackington’s Magazine, which I write about here — and, to a slightly lesser extent as it had undergone significant rewrites, my pulp adventure story “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion” which saw life in Crimson Streets and I delve Behind-the-Scenes here).

This time the niche in question was an anthology entitled Strange Economics, edited by David F. Shultz and available at Amazon and elsewhere — a collection of SF and Fantasy tales revolving around economics. Multi-author short story collections are a popular field, allowing readers to sample a variety of voices and styles between a single cover (or like getting a DVD boxed set of Twilight Zone episodes). But it helps to have a theme: dragon tales, first contact stories, etc. So Strange Economics settled on the theme of commerce and economies in different imagined times and far flung settings, ranging from hard SF to magic, from grimly serious to whimsical and humourous.

Of course, as always with such “themes” the trick isn’t just how the authors play within the confines of the subject matter…but how they tweak it, twist it, and push it to its Outer Limits (pun intended).

In the case of Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel it’s partly a story about economics…but it’s about a lot of other things: human nature, the environment, conspiracies. It tries to be both wryly satirical, slow brewing suspenseful, quirky, poignant, and, ultimately, unsettling. Viewed one way — and without giving too much away — it could be viewed as a kind of cynical take on Jurassic Park (or The Lost World — Doyle’s original, that is, not the Jurassic Park sequel) imagining a future where Dinosaurs are reintroduced to the modern world and become big business. We see this through the eyes of a journalist, Marco, who covers the story as it unfolds over weeks and months, but he also begins to perceive hints of another, darker scandal lurking underneath…

But I don’t want to say too much (you’ll have to read the story).

As I mentioned, the story first saw genesis some years ago, but the finished version also boasts some up-to-date rewrites. The editors suggested the opening scene could use some punching up. I initially quibbled, since the low-key, deadpan opening scene was deliberate. But I dutifully took another swing at it and tried to come up with something a little more punchy. Lo and behold, yeah, I think the new version works better — it kickstarts the story, adding more energy and drama. Not just to the one scene, but rippling through later scenes, too.

At the same time, because I wrote the story awhile ago, there are ways I’ve perhaps changed and, if anything, become more cynical. A central figure is a mysterious business tycoon, Everett Colan — I say central although he only appears in a couple of scenes, but his shadow falls over the entire story. I describe him as being young middle-age but with white hair and dressed all in black; I think I was sort of picturing Anglo-Canadian actor Nigel Bennett (bleached hair circa Forever Knight) garbed in Leonard Cohen’s wardrobe! Originally I was envisioning him as a suave, all-powerful uber-businessman, part Tony Stark, part James Bond villain-type (though whether he’s malevolent or simply morally ambivalent is something you’ll have to learn reading the story). But I think I’ve become even more cynical about such tech-bro oligarchs — the Elon Musks, Mark Zuckerbergs, and others of their ilk. I think Tony Stark (and James Bond villains) have fooled us into thinking they are a lot smarter, a lot cooler, and a lot more on the ball than they actually are. And I think this affected the rewritten opening scene, where Colan becomes a little less austere than he was in the original draft, and a little more showy and gauche (I mean, he’s still more Tony Stark, intellectually, than any real-world counterpart).

Anyway…see what ya think of the story. As I say: it tries to run the gamut (in just a few thousand words) of being wryly sardonic and darkly serious, and hopefully offers fresh twists on the dinosaurs n’ people theme. I mean, heck, given the revival of Jurassic Park with the Jurassic World movies, the story might appeal to you if you like those movies (I mean, purely thematically — it’s a socio-political short story, not a summer action movie!)

And even if you don’t like my story, there are plenty of others on display in the book by writers undoubtedly better and more talented than I. So you’re bound to find a few tales that’ll be worth a re-read down the line. I’ve only started on the anthology myself, so I won’t offer any overall opinion. But just the first two stories alone give a sense of the variety on display. “The Slow Bomb” by Neil James Hudson is a melancholic SF tale positing an eerie technology involving slow weapons, like a planet-devastating bomb that can be dropped…but won’t actually impact for decades, so whole generations of humans can grow up with this doomsday literally hovering over their heads. On the opposite end is “The Rule of Three” by Steve Dubois a humourous urban fantasy story where a small magic shop run by real witches and fairies finds itself struggling when a global franchise big box magic store moves into the neighbourhood.

Something for everyone I reckon.

So check out Strange Economics, edited by David F. Shultz.

(Oh, and while you’re here: check out my books of Canadian superhero adventure, S&S, and the non-fiction collection of my often controversial Canadian film & TV essays!)

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The First Superhero — Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal?

As readers of this blog know, among my varied interests are superheroes and pulp fiction, as well as Canadian pop culture. Interests that converge in the character of Jimmie Dale, created by early 20th Century Canadian writer Frank L. Packard.

Jimmie Dale — The Gray Seal! — is widely considered the prototype of the masked mystery man hero…and by extension, the superhero archetype. And I have an essay about the character on-line at the Rage Machine Books blog (it was initially on Dark Worlds Quarterly, the webzine/e-zine about SF, fantasy, pulp fiction put out by Rage Machine, but has been moved so I’ve up-dated the link!) If you’ve never heard of Jimmie Dale/The Gray Seal you should check out my piece — I think you’ll find it fascinating and eye-opening. And even if you have, I think I offer a few observations and inferences you might find intriguing (as I consider both how the character is like later characters in the genre…but also unlike them).

Dark Worlds Quarterly (and the Rage Machine blog) also has other nifty pieces (including recent postings about SF writer Edmond Hamilton and a piece looking at an early Batman comic co-written by a couple of well known SF writers!). My relationship with DWQ is kind of through the back door as I was initially interviewed by them for a piece, but subsequently they’ve accepted a couple of essays by me (including an essay considering the possible racial metaphors in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian books).

Anyway, if you’re interested in Jimmie Dale, superheroes, pulp fiction, or Canadian roots of western pop culture check out my piece.

(Oh, and shameless plug: I’ve also written my own available fiction, including some story collections about Canadian superheroes).

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | 2 Comments

Reviewing and pondering “True Patriot Presents”…

I’m going to comment on, and review, some of the anthology comic True Patriot Presents.

But my review comes from a particular angle: namely whether the stories (and the comic) succeed as a Canadian answer to American superhero comics. Which seemed to be how the series was marketed: an assemblage of homegrown Canadian super hero stories to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with American examples of the genre. As well, I have a selfish, mercenary agenda. I’ve written my own (prose) Canadian super hero stories — notably The Masques Chronicles, as well as The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun. And I figure if you’re the sort of person Googling for reviews of True Patriot Presents, you might be the sort of person interested in my stories. (And also I vary the spelling from “superhero” to “super hero” for the simple reason of not knowing how people might type it in during a websearch!)

Onward…

Spinning out of the TPB True Patriot (sub-titled: Canadian Comic Book Adventures — which I reviewed last time) came the on-going (digital-only, I believe) anthology comic, True Patriot Presents. My criticism of the True Patriot TPB was a feeling a lot of the contributors weren’t actually interested in presenting, y’know, super hero “Adventures,” preferring to satirize or otherwise shrug off the concept (some, not all). But with True Patriot Presents the focus seems much more on trying to tell superhero adventures. Over the early issues (I’ve only read the first four) we see a variety of characters, some returning from the TPB, some new, some in one-off shorts, some in serialized tales.

The Grey Owl returns for a one-issue story (#1) in a crossover of sorts — as it guest stars one of the Family Dynamic (who also appeared in the TPB) — and is by Family Dynamic writer J. Torres and Grey Owl creator J. Bone. The True Patriot stories seem to have (to varying degrees) an All-Ages vibe (ie: aimed at younger readers than, say, contemporaneous Batman comics, while ostensibly still appealing to grown-ups) and this story especially reflects that as it is whimsical and gentle-hearted, but definitely feels aimed at children.

Fred Kennedy returns with a one-time origin of Gull-Girl (#1), maintaining the sense of tongue-in-cheek he used in “The Bluenoser vs. Gull-Girl” with the villainous (or at least anti-hero-esque) Gull-Girl’s origin seeming partly a spoof on Superman’s origin. But then he contributes to the second issue the far more straight-faced Crude (#2), as if Kennedy (joined by artist Dave Bishop) is now warming to the idea of genuinely trying to create a Canadian superhero/fantasy property (rather than spoofing it). At first I was enjoying the story, thinking how Kennedy was essentially going the comic book archetype route (creating a character deliberately riffing on an established cliché) with what was obviously a kind of Man-Thing/Swamp Thing concept — only with a gender-switch (the character’s female) and involving crude oil rather than swamp muck. Unfortunately, by the end of the origin tale, that’s all we really have: some familiar clichés (industrial accident, tragic muck monster, sinister corporation) with little sense Kennedy has come up with anything fresh or is putting his own thumb print on it. It’s an origin story, and only a few pages, so really all he’s trying to do is get his pieces on the board — it’s what he does with it that will decide things. But it’s worth remembering that arguably the strength of characters like Man-Thing and Swamp Thing was the strange and surreal adventures writers like Len Wein and Steve Gerber and Alan Moore crafted for them more than the original concept.

Probably the centrepiece of True Patriot Presents is Jay Stephens’ Arrowhead (#1-up), both in that its instalments seem to get the most pages, and it’s featured in all of the early issues. It’s clear Stephens does genuinely see this as a viable adventure-hero property, and it doesn’t lack for incorporating ideas (at one point citing various real-life Canadian weird/paranormal incidents and suggesting they are connected ala some X-Files like conspiracy). There’s the Arrowhead suit found by some teenagers, sinister conspiracies, mind control, and more. But it can feel a bit like he’s busy lathering new ideas into the pot because he’s not entirely sure how to serve it up. What I’m getting at is that there’s more emphasis on where the story’s headed than where it is. Ostensibly Cody is our main character — but even after four instalments he has little personality/presence.

Dominion Jack also returns from the TPB with an even more straight-forward action-adventure three-part story (#2-4) than he had in the TPB. Unfortunately the results were muddled, both in terms of the visuals by Dominic Bercier (which I found both confusing and, frankly, ugly — in quite a contrast to the art in the TPB by Ronald Salas which was going for a semi-realism) and in terms of Jack Briglio‘s script. On one hand it tries to be ambitious (throwing in a super-villain who used to be his best friend, plus a flashback origin sequence) even as that’s the problem: it feels like the reader’s been thrown in the deep end without water-wings, like this is some long standing character who we are supposed to already know and care about. (To be honest, I’m still a little confused about Dominion Jack’s powers — though I think they’re like the idea I used in my story “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” which I talk about here — this commercial plug brought to you by The Masques Chronicles!)

A new addition to the roster is the two part Fantome (#3-4) story by Meaghan Carter. It’s a fairly generic heroine (in terms of powers/personality) and a cartoony, undynamic art style in service of a simple plot — however! — I actually thought it improved a bit in the second chapter. At least, the art, though still cartoony and not exactly super-hero-y, seemed more dynamic, with better storytelling composition. So it was likeable in a breezy, fun way (seeming very much “All-Ages”). But again it suffered from the simple fact that there wasn’t enough to it (in terms of character, plot, or ideas) to really say whether I’d want to read any further tales. And by the end, Carter has actually introduced three super-heroes!

This seems a recurring thread among many of these stories: a desire on the part of the creators to just kind throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and to create a kind of “instant superhero universe.” Rather than focusing on the characters and the stories they are writing about — as if they’re more attracted to the idea of a super hero comic. This is hardly unique to them, or Canadian comics. Arguably the idea of a super hero universe has become so much a part of comics (as witness the modern movies and TV shows emulating the idea of shared universes) the idea of “just add water/instant super-verses” are quite common when creators do their own independent comics. But it can also feel like they’re putting too much emphasis on the form rather than the substance (I’m thinking of things like Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and others — series which, to be fair, are critically acclaimed). To put it another way, it’s as if instead of trying to create and develop interesting characters with interesting plots, they just toss in more tropes whenever the plot seems stalled.

Now obviously a big problem with my critiques is that the creators are working with a limited page count, restricting what they can do with the characters. It’s hard to introduce an interesting character, develop his/her personality and supporting cast, and unfold an interesting plot — all in 5 or 8 pages.

I’ll also be brutal and say that the art in a lot of them was problematic in that it was mostly rough and sketchy. That isn’t to say it isn’t without talent or appeal: Stephens, Carter, etc. clearly have skill. But to put it bluntly, little of it seems like the sort of art you’d see on Spider-Man or Green Lantern. Part of it I suppose might be economic. Just as Canadian movies can’t hope to match the budget of a Hollywood film, indie comic artists can’t really afford to spend days working on a single page, carefully detailing and modelling figures, meticulously filling in complicated vistas, not if their page-rate is a fraction what someone working on a best selling super hero comic is being paid.

And it should be acknowledged that someone might counter: they shouldn’t be like Spider-Man or Green Lantern! That the whole point of Canadian comics (and Canadian super hero comics) is that they should be different, quirky, experimental. And that I’m just demonstrating a sad, Philistine attitude if I’m constantly comparing them to American models. Which, y’know, is a point of view, obviously.

But I’m just being pragmatic. I’m reminded of an interview I read with a Canadian comic book creator (I can’t remember who at the moment, but he was someone who made quirky, indie, black & white, “personal” sort of comics) who seemed genuinely angry that his comics didn’t sell as well as Superman! And he seemed to blame his lack of success on an anti-Canadian bias (both within and without Canada) as opposed to recognizing that, um, his comics were nothing like Superman so it’s unsurprising they didn’t have the same mass audience. In much the same way Canadian filmmakers will make Artsy, indie films — then complain they aren’t making the same profits as Jurassic Park or Star Wars movies!

If True Patriot Presents is meant to show that Canadians can make super hero comics as good as Americans than it’s fair to ask whether the comparison holds up. Because if the sales aren’t that great, if a fandom doesn’t arise behind them — then that very lack of success will be used in the future to argue there’s no market for Canadian superheroes when, y’know, maybe the problem was simply the execution, rather than the Canadianness.

Obviously — I come at this with an agenda and a bias. I’ve spent years writing about, arguing about, and defending the notion of Canadian pop culture (whether movies, TV shows, or comics; I’ve recently collected some of my film/TV essays in a book — plug! plug!) and so I’m looking at True Patriot Presents not just as a quirky little anthology comic, but at what impact it could have on the idea of Canadian comics (superheroes, commercial, mainstream, etc.) into the future.

Still, these are mostly initial and introductory stories. They could well blossom into great things with a few more adventures under their belts. But I guess my quibble with that is you kind of need to catch the readers’ attention at the start in order to get them to want to stick around for later.

I’m not trying to be a complete wet blanket. I do think there was some charm to Fantome. And Arrowhead is certainly sparing no horses in trying to create a fast-paced conspiracy yarn. And there’s nothing about most of the properties here that would suggest they couldn’t evolve into interesting features. But there’s a real sense a lot of the creators are having fun rather than knuckling down and approaching it as a serious commercial assignment. (And if you’re working in the short comic book story format, I might suggest familiarizing yourself with how others have tackled and exploited the format, such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit, or Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter, or, well, really the long history of short back up tales in mainstream super hero comics).

I also want to address the whole “All-Ages” thing. I have no objection to youth-aimed/All Ages comics. Indeed — I encourage them. At the same time, All-Ages comics can be problematic (I’m thinking in general, not just True Patriot). Part of the marketing impetus for them is the need to cultivate kid comic book readers who can grow into the adult comics readers of tomorrow. But I almost wonder if All-Ages comics are still a victim of the navel-gazing self-reflectiveness that have made other comics such a parochial medium. What I mean is: are All-Ages comics made for and enjoyed by young readers? — or are they made for what the creators think young readers want but are mostly just read by adult readers who enjoy them as nostalgia-tinged kitsch? Because thinking back to when I was a kid, I’m not sure I actually would’ve enjoyed modern All-Ages comics as much as the creators assume a kid would. The deliberately cartoony art styles often employed on modern All-Ages comics I think I would’ve found off-putting (and the storytelling/composition often confusing) — I mean, even as a kid I enjoyed “good” (ie: realist) art. And the campy, superficial plotting/characterization probably would’ve left me restless.

Now since I mentioned part of the reason I was writing this review was to draw attention to my own superhero (prose) story collections (figuring if you’re Googling to find reviews of True Patriot Presents, you might be the sort of person interested in my stories) I want to make some points:

Obviously whether my stories are any good is only something you, dear reader, can assess. But the intent of my stories was to try and tell super hero adventure/thrillers, featuring original creations, and set in Canada (sometimes drawing explicitly upon historical periods and regions, sometimes not so overtly). Some of my characters I think are interesting and intriguing — but some are, I suspect, precisely like what I’m criticizing about True Patriot: rather generic personalities with commonplace abilities. But that gets to the whole “plot” idea. Because I was genuinely trying to come up with interesting stories, plots with beginnings, middles, and ends, and a few twists along the way. Obviously, I had an advantage in that writing a 6000 word story allows more latitude than a six or eight page comic. But if you’re wondering precisely what I mean when I talk about these things (characters/powers, personalities, plots) you could try my books and see what you think. Is there a different approach? No? Better? Worse? Am I fooling myself thinking there’s a distinction? After all, even I said I think Dominion Jack and my character, Mosaic, have similar powers — did I make use of the idea better? Worse? Same?

Obviously — I’m too close to it to be unbiased. Only you can decide that.

True Patriot Presents is a Digital-Only series available from Chapterhouse Comics (and sites like ComiXology)

The Masques Chronicles (and The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun) are available from Amazon (my webpage about them is here).

Belated Afterthought Department: As should be obvious when I post opinions, I’m essentially musing out-loud — intellectually spit-balling if you will. I’m just articulating my visceral take on something. And my comments about All-Ages comics was because I’m genuinely curious about the demographics, and who is buying them vs. who it’s assumed is buying them. I don’t know, hence why I’m just musing about it.

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Reviewing and pondering “True Patriot Presents”…

Reviewing: True Patriot (“Canadian Comic Book Adventures”)

This is part review/part broader analysis. So I’ll be looking at both the 2014 soft cover TPB, True Patriot, as well as referencing some superhero prose anthologies and some of my own writings in the field. Plus I’ll be reflecting on “Canadian” superheroes — and even toss in an aside about the business model of a particular comic shop! (And this is Part One. Next time I’ll continue the thread by looking at the follow up True Patriot Presents comic). So buckle up:

True Patriot is a comic book anthology TPB of Canadian superhero stories (I’m reviewing it belatedly in 2018 since, y’know, any book you haven’t read is a “new” book). Edited by J. Torres (writer of such comics as Family Dynamic and the graphic novel Scandalous) and initially published independently, the concept continued under the banner of Chapterhouse Comics which produced a follow-up series, True Patriot Presents (which I’ll look at next time).

(And which may have resulted in a hardcover TPB: when I picked up this softcover TPB, there was another, hardcover, True Patriot volume next to it that seemed to have different content).

Now I’ll be up-front that part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my usual graphic novel reviews website) is entirely mercenary: I’ve written some collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m hoping to get people to buy ’em — or at least be aware of ’em. So I figure if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of True Patriot, you might be the sort of person interested in my books, too. (Pretty please!)

A little bit of behind-the-scenes trivia is that I picked this up at The Dragon, a comic book shop in Guelph, Ontario — the framing sequence in the TPB involving a little boy at a comic shop is actually modelled after one of The Dragon’s stores.

I don’t live in Guelph, but I have been in the stores (they have two branches in Guelph!) a few times over the years and it might be an interesting business model aspiring comic shop owners should look into. Instead of doubling down on the Big Bang Theory-cliché of the dark, parochial comic shop catering to mostly males, the Dragon stores are bright, open, cheery places that clearly set out to establish a sense of a family atmosphere; the staff are a little older, professionally dressed, and many are women — a bit different from The Simpson’s slovenly comic shop guy (which is not exactly an inaccurate depiction of some shops I’ve seen). Like most comic shops they’ve broadened their stock — but in addition to the obligatory card and role playing games I associate with other stores, they have a lot more kids books and novelties. When I was there just before Christmas (2017) the owner was helpful and garrulous — he even told me the proper pronunciation of Nelvana! (And if you’re asking: “Nelvana?” just don’t even pretend to have an interest in Canadian comics until you’ve Googled her!) He also tracked down a copy of Beyond: Quest for Meadan for me even though it didn’t show up in his computer (I had wandered off to browse when suddenly he thrust it in front of me! Talk about service!) But just to give you an idea of how bad I am at self-promotion: I never mentioned to him that I had written some superhero story collections, or had stories in the published anthologies Masked Mosaic and
Tesseracts Nineteen. I figured he had better things to do, other customers to see. But I suppose a real go-getter with moxy would’ve told him, maybe seen if he’d be interested in stocking my books (yeah, they’re e-books, but I could make physical copies). But I didn’t want to be an ass (alas!) Anyway, my point is when you hear about a lot of comic shops struggling, the Dragon stores (I assume) are doing okay for themselves.

Anyhoo… On with the reviewing:

Now I’ve written before (in other reviews) that short stories can be problematic in a comic book form (despite the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words), with the limited page count forcing the stories to be pretty minimalist. Or more to the point: creators think the limited pages requires a minimalist story (I mean, Will Eisner’s The Spirit demonstrated you could squeeze a lot into a few pages if you’re so inclined). It just seems to me that when comic books — specifically super hero comics — are wrapped around short little vignettes, they can be uneven.

Plus with an anthology there’s also the conflict when the (possible) intent of the editors/publishers collides with the (I assume) intent of the writers/artists.

With True Patriot the (seeming) editorial intent was to present a world of Canadian superheroes, to kick in the black-painted windows of cultural timidity and let in the light of imagination. To offer a world of Canadian superheroes in a medium — and genre — largely dominated by other countries’ heroes. The TPB is even framed by a sequence of a little boy vainly searching a comic shop for some Canadian comics (with, possibly, an extra subtext of him wanting wholesome All-Ages comics, with the comics he turns his nose up featuring gun-wielding heroes, ninjas, monsters, and buxom babes).

I mean, the cover literally proclaims: “Canadian Comic Book Adventures!” And the introduction by Mike Valiquette cites iconic traditional superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Superman, and Canada’s Captain Canuck, and suggests True Patriot is continuing in that tradition.

But the problem is that many of the stories being offered are more like a spoof of superheroes, or a satire of Canadiana. Which seems a contradiction of the anthology’s very purpose. Essentially an editor says: “Hey, let’s do an anthology showing that Canada can be just as fertile ground for superhero adventures as America.” And some of the creators respond: “I’ve got a great idea how to ridicule that very premise — count me in!”

Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat. Some of the stories do feel as though the creators were genuinely aiming to come up with a viable property. As well, I get back to my earlier point about how the “short” comic book story is problematic. As an example I’m thinking of the Captain America graphic novel, Red, White, and Blue which offered a bunch of short tales by a variety of creators — most of which were quirky or satirical, and very few of which functioned as a superhero adventure told in limited pages.

But in True Patriot there are pieces like “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” (6 pgs, by Faith Erin Hicks) in which a teenage girl superhero (in a deliberately makeshift costume) confronts a collection of villains literally named The League of Villainous Canadian Stereotypes! And “The Bluenoser vs. Gull Girl” (4 pgs. by Fred Kennedy and Adam Gorham — Kennedy is listed as writer, Gorham the inker, so I’m not sure if one of them was the penciller) is another comedic piece using exaggerated Canadian archetypes. “The Grey Owl vs. Bigfoot” (9 pgs. by J. Bone) also goes the tongue-in-cheek route with exaggerated Canadian clichés…but feels a little more good natured, like Bone is having fun revelling in the overt Canadianess more than he’s making fun of it.

I fully understand and can sympathize with a writer bristling at the idea of making something distinctly “Canadian” — but equally I have trouble with creators (in whatever medium) who invoke Straw Man clichés to show how silly it is. In “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” the whole point of the story is basically just to ridicule the idea of something being overtly Canadian. (Hick’s Superhero Girl has actually appeared in her own collection — but is primarily a spoof/joke on superheroes).

And, to be honest, I just didn’t them that funny for stories that were primarily meant to be humourous.

“Justice Jenny” (6 pgs. by Agnes Garbowska) sidesteps the whole Canadian thing, but equally isn’t much interested in presenting a superhero tale either. Instead it’s a whimsical piece about a little girl who dresses as a superhero during recess and settles schoolyard disputes. It’s cute enough, and reinforces my impression that many of the stories are deliberately aimed at younger readers.

Now before I come across as a complete stick-in-the-mud, probably my favourite story in the collection is “Uh-Oh Ogopogo!” (10 pgs by Howard Wong and Adrian Alphona) which is another humourous piece that isn’t really about an archetypical “superhero”; oh, and there’s lots of overt, tongue-in-cheek Canadianess (a Sasquatch — again! — and Ogopogo, etc.) But it’s suitably quirky and amusing and, in a way, thoughtful (and is another tale wrapped around a kid learning a lesson). I do wonder if its longer page count and use of small panels (fitting a lot on a page) allows it to rise above simply being a vignette.

Among the stories that seem a little more as though they are trying to be superhero-superhero stories are, of course, “Snow Day” (8 pgs. by J. Torres — who, remember, was also the editor of the anthology — and Tim Levins). I say “of course” because it features the Family Dynamic — a Canadian superhero team already featured in their own short-lived All-Ages comic for DC Comics a few years ago! They’re basically a kind of Fantastic Four-like group only even more intrinsically a family (think of the animated movie The Incredibles) Again, it’s mostly slight (fighting a super-villain while helping motorists trapped in highway gridlock) and comedic, but decent enough. The same could be said about “Particle Man” (8 pgs. by Ramón Pérez) which for some reason kind of sticks with me — I suspect partly just because of the striking costume designs, especially of the title character!

“Phase One: Test Flight” featuring Arrowhead (8 pgs. by Jay Stephens) particularly feels like a sincere attempt to create a superhero and draw upon Canadiana, with some teens discovering a lost super suit supposedly built by the real life Avro aviation company (of the Avro Arrow fame). Putting aside my long-standing mixed feelings about the cultural mythologizing of the Avro Arrow (which is a topic for another day), the result is perhaps a little too Iron Man-esque, and also never fully coalesces into a satisfying story (the main conflict is with some bullies — getting back to my point about “All Ages” storytelling). But perhaps for the obvious reason that, as the title (“Phase One”) implies, it’s more intended as an opening chapter. Which at least indicates Stephens did genuinely see it as having legs. In a similar vein, “Whatever Happened to the Red Ensign?” (8 pgs., by Scott Chantler) with some kids watching a newsreel of a WW II era superhero feels like a promo for a character more than a story in its own right. (And FYI: I wrote an earlier post about the use and history of the “Red Ensign” as a Canadian super hero name!)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Arrowhead and The Red Ensign were revived for the subsequent True Patriot Presents comics. (Which I’ll come back to next time).

Somewhere in the middle lie Dominion Jack in “My Way” (8 pgs. by Jack Briglio and Ronald Salas) about a father-daughter superhero duo trying to save the prime minister’s life during a hockey game, interspersed with talk about what makes a Canadian hero. And “Thunder Birch” (6 pgs. by Andy Belanger) which draws heavily upon Indigenous inspiration for a story about a heroine battling a lake monster. The reason I say they are in the middle is because I can’t say they aren’t telling adventure stories and, indeed, with less camp and tongue-in-cheek than many of the other stories — without either really quite feeling like you could imagine them sustaining further adventures (or are even intended to! — though Dominion Jack did return in True Patriot Presents)

Throughout the art styles tend to be fairly cartoony and exaggerated. Styles that add to my impression of the stories (mostly) being light-hearted and aimed at younger readers. But I’m also aware that these are popular and common styles these days, so that may not be a fair inference. Certainly reading the creator bios a number of these contributors have worked on mainstream American comics of horror and even super heroes. The art is mostly good — I’m not saying it isn’t. Just it’s not especially, y’know, super-heroic! Though there is a nice variety in it, which can be an appeal in anthology (from Garbowska’s almost children’s picture book style visuals to Levins more superhero-esque style).

Now here’s where the problem with figuring out the reviewer’s role comes in. Because even I admit my review can basically be summed up as: this isn’t what I was hoping it would be. To another reader it might be precisely what they were hoping it would be.

I’m not really trying to tell you whether this is a good collection or a bad one — I’m simply articulating my reaction to it. (Equally I have no objection to youth-aimed/All Ages comics. Indeed — I encourage them. But equally I can only assess them by how I react to them as an adult or, at best, how I think I might have responded to them when I was a kid). And as I make clear, I’ve long felt the “short”-comic book story format can be problematic; without enough time to develop a plot or the personalities, they are often insubstantial.

Heck, you could love True Patriot to bits — and still find my comments interesting just as an alternate perspective. Equally you could hate True Patriot and still think my review was dumb because you wanted the book to be more satirical of the “Canadian superheroes” theme.

But that’s why you can almost see my piece less as a straight “review” and more like, I dunno, an “analysis” — considering it in a broader context.

In a way, True Patriot shares some commonalities with the prose anthologies Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) and Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016) — both of which were anthologies playing around with the theme of Canadian superheroes (and full disclosure: I have stories in both volumes — I’m not just a pretty face, y’know). Being prose anthologies, with pretensions to literature, most of the stories in those collections weren’t straight-forward superhero adventures either. Some were. But plenty were ironic, or satirical, or deconstructionist, or coloured as far outside the lines of the theme as they could without leaving the page entirely. And so in that sense, True Patriot is in good company.

But I guess I look at it from the point of view (as someone who has spent years writing about and championing Canadiana in pop culture) that as an actual comic book anthology (rather than prose) the opportunity would be for creators to present characters and stories that really were meant to show Canadian characters could muscle their way onto the shelf next to Superman and Spider-Man and Hellboy. A chance for the reader to be like the little boy in the TPB’s framing sequence and thrill to a world of Canadian superheroes.

And I’m just not sure True Patriot really does that — and, more to the point, I don’t think for a lot of the creators that was even their intent.

If someone dismisses the very idea of Canadian superheroes as inherently silly, I can’t help but ask: could True Patriot be used to prove them wrong? — or would they point to it as proof that they are right?

When I wrote my story collections — Screeech! “Wait, dude (I hear you say) do you really think trying to promote your work after dissing this TPB is a good idea? Aren’t the creators who worked on True Patriot and readers who loved it gonna hate you just on principle?” Well, maybe. But maybe not. I work on the idealistic theory that discussion is good, and healthy, and that people can disagree but still realize they’re all working for the same goal. The very reason I’m writing about True Patriot (and had mixed feeling about it) is because I believe in the importance of Canadian popular entertainment (that’s why I write about it so much over the years, about films, TV, and comics — heck, I set up the Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). If reading my review of True Patriot gets you curious about it and you go buy a copy — no one would be happier than me! But that’s because I believe it’s bigger and broader than any one creator or any one project. And I’m naïve enough to think that some of the creators of True North (and those who loved it) might feel the same way (but I’m also aware that a lot probably won’t).

But also I’m citing my writings as part of contextualizing my review. My point is to say that (I think) many of the contributors to True North would agree their stories weren’t really meant to be “serious” superhero stories, or to be imagined sitting on a shelf next to The X-Men. But to some extent that was precisely the intent of my stories: to try and present adventure and mystery stories with superheroes that you could almost imagine having been displayed on the comics racks over the years; to genuinely try and envision a Canadian superhero universe like Marvel or DC have, where the stories really are meant to be exciting and thrilling, and where the setting and the time period are a part of the narrative (my stories occurring in different decades and, to greater and lesser extent, drawing upon their eras for the ideas). I’m mostly pleased with the results, but I’m still waiting for that critical mass of sales where people start posting reviews (for good or ill).

Anyway…

Viewed as an All-Ages romp, suitable for younger readers, True Patriot is certainly not disagreeable. Not if you’re looking for quick, mostly light-hearted little tales. But if you were looking for a collection of superhero adventures, with thrills, and some gravitas, awakening to the storytelling possibilities and potentials inherent in Canada…you might need to keep looking (and no, I’m not going to put in another plug for my books — though you know that’s what I’m hinting at, heh heh).

Next time:…I’ll comment on the first few issues of True North Presents, the spin-off series that does, in fact, seem to aim to be a little more “superhero-adventure.”

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Behind-the-Scenes: “Lucifer’s Legion”

I have a story up at Crimson Streets Magazine — the on-line (and free to read) webzine specializing in evoking the spirit of the pulp magazine era with tales encompassing hardboiled private eyes, horror, fantasy, SF, and adventure.

My story is called “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion” and mashes up a few genres, including action-adventure, horror, war, and superheroes! You can think of it as kind of “The Dirty Dozen” meets “Predator” (which, y’know, is bit redundant since in a way the movie “Predator” was already sort of the Dirty Dozen meets the Predator!) — but with an added twist of costumed superheroes!

The story’s background is that I wrote a version of it a few years ago — telling a tale of WW II soldiers battling a supernatural monster while on a mission — for an interested editor. But the proposed magazine never materialized. And it was kind of a hard fit for other magazines. Then a while later I embarked on my ambitious (if I do say so myself) Masques Chronicles project, presenting a multi-generations spanning superhero universe. And I thought maybe I could dust off my soldiers-fights-monster story and re-purpose it with superheroes. Since the stories in my Masques Chronicles project were deliberately meant to be rooted in different decades, the WW II setting seemed ideal. So I re-worked the story, adding a bit more (I hope) depth to the characters, giving the story (again: hopefully) a bit more nuance…while also trying to capture an almost cinematic sense of action and suspense, especially in the scenes of the protagonists running about a dark forest, hunting and being hunted by their mysterious enemy.

With the superhero element I wanted to evoke the sense of both archetypal characters (especially from the Golden Age of comics: a tux wearing magician, a .45 wielding cloaked avenger, etc.) while also suggesting these were kind of second-tier misfits, not quite good enough to be legends on their own (one guy’s power is simply telescopic vision). And the group is known as “Lucifer’s Legion” — a deliberate riff on the real-life Canadian-American World War II commandoes: The Devil’s Brigade.

One character (the co-lead) is a French-Canadian “Masque” (the term I use in my Masques Chronicles for superheroes) called Le bucheron (a.k.a. The Lumberjack). See, part of the idea I was playing with in my Masques Chronicles was to confront the oft-argued idea that Canadian ideas and clichés can’t make good grist for pulpy fiction. So I deliberately wanted to see if I could prove it wrong by (sometimes) cheekily embracing an idea that is almost ridiculous…and make it not ridiculous (in the Masques Chronicles I have a heroine called The Beaver…and I think she’s pretty kick ass). So while coming up with my misfit heroes for Lucifer’s Legion I created Le bucheron — a guy whose costume literally involves a plaid shirt and wielding an axe as his signature weapon. Silly? You betcha. But my argument is most superheroes sound silly (Ant-Man? Batman?) until someone comes along and makes ’em not silly. So my challenge for myself was to imagine a goofy idea like a superhero using a lumberjack motif — and, hopefully, a few paragraphs into the story the reader isn’t thinking he’s silly; instead maybe thinking he’s cool, maybe even caring about him a little.

But then as I was finalizing my Masques Chronicles I decided to cut “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion.” I realized maybe I had enough WW II era stories (given the book was meant to present multiple decades, not just the 1940s) and since the other stories took place within Canada, I decided the European-set Lucifer’s Legion was maybe an outlier.

And I guess it was good I did. Because it then made an ideal submission to Crimsons Streets — and I guess the editors agreed!

Did I succeed? Is the story an exciting mix of adventure and horror, mixed up with a little wry humour and a dollop of pathos? Check it out for yourself here and decide (and enjoy the cool illustration by Sheik!). And while there read some of Crimson Streets other offerings, ’cause even if you don’t like mine, there’re stories by other (maybe better!) writers. And if you do like the story, please buy a copy of The Masques Chronicles (Vol 1 & II) or my other offering about WW II era superheroes, The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun Omnibus!

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: “Lucifer’s Legion”