BLOG: Notes from Shangri-La (2.0)
Essentially, this is a repurposing of my old LiveJournal blogging space (which I retired in January 2010).
In general, this is more personal blogging material, or notes or musings on whatever I happen to be working on at any given moment. It'll also be very sporadic.
On 5 November, right before my birthday, my cat Twitch died. It's been a day shy of one month since it happened, and I'm still having difficulty with it. This has felt like a season of loss on a number of fronts: my paternal grandfather is suffering from the effects of advanced age, which has created difficulty for my father; several close friends are undergoing significant personal upheaval; projects I wanted to do well have not been the professional boon I'd hoped; my runs on several series that I've had extended tenures on have ended.
The last few months have forced me to say good bye to a lot of things. So, forgive me the rank sentimentality; it's been a sad time.
Twitch wasn't young; my best reckoning puts him at between 18-20 years old. He was a shelter rescue, and the shelter had no exact record of his age. But he's been part of my life for almost two decades, and his absence has been keenly felt.
Before adopting Twitch—so named for his dual habits of shaking his tail like a rattlesnake when he was happy, and for his tendency to smash catnip toys into his face like a lunatic—I'd never had a cat before. At the shelter, it was a toss-up between Twitch and a massive orange tomcat (probably 10 years old) that had become a favorite of the people at the shelter. I chose pretty wisely, it seems.
We brought him home, and he ran around like a lunatic, exploring everything, climbing up the wooden support beams in our upstairs loft and crouched in the rafters overhead, which soon became his favorite perch.
I was reluctant to let Twitch run around outdoors, as the neighborhood we lived in was plagued by inattentive drivers, so we leash-trained him. He was not overly fond of the leash, but he did tolerate it for many years.
On one of our daily walks, we bumped into two small children and their mother, who recognized him as "their" cat, "Mittens." (Twitch was polydactyl, with both "thumbs" and vestigial toes between the thumb and the main part of his paw.) It seemed that our decision to leash-train Twitch was a good one; the mother told me that they had been forced to give him up because he had a habit of chasing—and catching—the school bus.
After leaving Pennsylvania and settling in Washington, Twitch continued to thrive. I'm not given to anthropomorphizing animals, but he appeared to intuit when my mood was low or if I was ill; when my first marriage ended, he wouldn't leave me alone, quietly perching near my shoulder when I sat on the couch, or sitting next to my computer when I worked at my desk—places he had ignored prior to the upheaval.
As recently as October, he seemed to know when I didn't feel well, always making a point of "checking up" on me, patrolling the area where I sat or napped on the couch.
Up until the last couple weeks of his life, he still played with toys (tail twitching with pleasure), still vocalized a specific, chirping purr when he saw either myself or my wife, still demanded his "fair share" of the bed.
That morning, he seemed fine. A little tired, and with advancing age and a thyroid burning out and requiring daily medication, but otherwise good. We'd had to relocate him to the downstairs bathroom, as he'd been having issues finding his litter box in time, but there'd been few mishaps for several days so we were contemplating restoring his bedroom privileges.
But quite suddenly, he became disoriented; hungry, but unable to swallow his food. A look in his eyes confirmed to my satisfaction that he was just too tired to hold on any longer. My wife made the vet appointment, and I was getting ready to say good-bye to my friend of nearly 20 years.
I hopped into the shower, and Gabrielle wrapped Twitch in a favorite bath-towel and snuggled with him on the couch. Within minutes, and with typical stubbornness -- he hated car rides, and the vet was about an hour's ride away -- he began to fail. Gabi and I held him as he quickly and painlessly passed away.
He was a great companion, with a scrappy, robust personality. He was funny, and stubborn, and scrappy, and grouchy, and adoring, and mischievous, and affectionate, and playful. For several months, because he required daily medication, he'd been a part-time store cat, bunked a few days a week (mostly in my office) at my wife's comic book shop so we could take care of him. He'd patrol the store, collecting his due affection from staff and customers, and my store kids adored him and treated him like their own. (The joke was one them, of course; Twitch adopted them, not the other way 'round.)
For almost 20 years, Twitch was a constant presence in my life, and a good pal, and I miss him terribly.
I've finally returned from San Diego, CA., where I attended Comic Con International. As always, it was overwhelming, colorful, overwhelming, entertaining, and overwhelming.
Typically, I fly out a couple days early to spend time with my friend, Jeremy, and leave a couple days after the con to avoid overcrowded flights. Tends to work out great, but also means I haven't seen the inside of my own home in over a week.
Some highlights of the show this year: I finally got to meet Ande Parks, a terrific writer (his Union Station is a must-read true-crime graphic novel) whom I've bantered with several times via Twitter, saw a dancing robot, met and spoke to Dirk Benedict at a local burger joint, sat in a replica of Kirk's command chair from Star Trek, got very close to a display of various movie and TV Batmobiles, met artist Giovanni Timpano, drank several mojitos, saw dolphins frolicking in the surf while my wife and I swam in the Pacific, and managed to acquire for myself one of the spiffy Comic Con exclusive SHIELD Helicarriers.
Here's some photo highlights of cool swag and convention niftyness.
I realize I haven't updated over here in almost a year -- lamenting my 39th birthday -- as I rapidly approach my 40th.
(In happier news, for my 40th birthday, my amazing and awesome wife has arranged a killer trip to Las Vegas, and my first issue of Flash Gordon should be hitting stands at about the same time.)
Yesterday, I completed writing chores on my 14th consecutive issue of Red Sonja, making this my longest run on a title to date.
It's been an interesting run, which began as the editor asking me for four issues as fast as I could crank them out. The result, "War Season," ran from issues 51-54, and by the third installment, it was clear that I would be continuing on the title for a while. Issue 55 became an epilogue, and is in many ways the focal point for my entire run.
The upcoming run, "Echoes of War," is a sequel of sorts to "War Season," and I'm once again reteamed with "War Season" penciler Walter Geovani.
I'm pretty excited about it. "Echoes" ties up a lot of loose ends, and a theme has emerged about the consequences of drawing the sword, putting a capstone on the whole shebang and leaving me poised to push the character in a new direction (though what direction that is, I'm still not sure).
Coinciding roughly with my 40th birthday has made it feel (to me, at least; your mileage may vary) like I've accomplished something. The stories are very much me, the kind of book I like to read, and am quite proud to have written. Hopefully you've enjoyed them, too.
In the next few weeks, I hope to post an annotated "scriptbook" of "War Season" and its epilogue, with subsequent arcs being included as they make their way to trade paperback (pending approval of the publisher and license holder, naturally).
So, I turn 39 tomorrow.
I tend toward the maudlin around my birthday, starting exactly 10 years ago. That transitional boundary between my 20s and 30s left me a little shaken and sad, and the subsequent push toward 40 hasn't been one I've accepted gracefully.
In my professional life, I've always felt a sense of running out of time, of racing the clock, coupled with the omnipresent dread that the stories locked away inside me won't be told in time.
(No, it isn't pleasant, thank you for asking.)
At times like this, I tend to look back, take stock, remember the things that have been lost in my strangely permeable memory. (Wholesale sections of my childhood are just gone, and I've always had difficulty remembering the chronology of events during times I found particularly traumatic. It's all fog and shadows.)
Those memories come back in shards, suddenly and with startling clarity. One such memory:
It was fall, edging into winter, in upstate New York. I was a freshman in high school (late '85, or thereabouts), and it was the beginning of a happier period of my life.
I had been "adopted" by the school librarian -- often I was allowed to remain in the library beyond the allotted permissible number of "study periods" one could spend there. I think Mrs. Gardener -- the librarian -- recognized that I was something of a loner, and I would lose myself for hours in there, reading voraciously.
That particular late-Autumn afternoon, she suggested a book to me: "Deathbird Stories" by Harlan Ellison. I'm not sure why, and I'm honestly a little shocked that our provincial little school library even had it on the shelves. Walking home, through the local "recreational" park (a couple of tennis courts, an unpleasant artificial "lake" for summer swimming, some kids' playground gear), I stopped at a favorite haunt: a particular tree that I used to climb, on a windswept hill.
It was my favorite place to sit and read in the summer. So, despite the gathering gloom, (limned by the oddly golden, thin light that autumn afternoons-moving-on-to-evenings that characterizes the Adirondacks and that chilly season), I adjusted my scarf against the biting wind with, and hauled myself up into the branches.
Settling back against the cold bark of the tree trunk, I cracked the cover of "Deathbird Stories" and read "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs."
A transformative moment, for sure. Blistering, rage-soaked prose, a ghastly tale of inhumanity in a lightly fantastic cloak. Eye opening.
There's something about Ellison's work that always transports me back to that cold day, the coppery Autumn sunshine, the biting wind. It is a melancholy memory but also powerful; that sense, upon reading those words, of the power could be packed into words on the page.
Not a bad moment to look back on.
Recently, my mother sent me a lovely gift—an Amazon Kindle—as a staggeringly early birthday present.
I've long been intrigued by the notion of electronic books (one of the first personal publishing efforts I attempted was to develop, along with my friend Tim O'Brien, dice-and-paper roleplaying game books specifically for .PDF release), and have been considering a Kindle or Sony eReader for a while.
(I rejected the Nook out of hand; my one experience handling one in the store was not successful; the test unit didn't work and the form factor didn't appeal to me at all.)
I've used the new Kindle pretty heavily for the last week, and it's a damned nifty device.
The unit is compact and comfortable to hold (though the inclusion of a semi-rigid case has helped), and the display is easy enough to read. The type size is adjustable, though the option to change the font to taste would seem a logical option, especially for typography nerds like, well, me.
Battery life is considerable, particularly if you turn off the wireless access when not downloading/synching files; I wouldn't mind the option to toggle a backlight, though the design aesthetic of the Kindle would find such an option anathematic. Barring that, a lighter default background (the screen is essentially a pale grey, not dissimilar to that of a 1980s digital watch) would help improve contrast.
Overall, the form factor is great, though I have some quibbles with button placement; I'd prefer the "next page" and "previous page" buttons beneath my right thumb, particularly when using the rigid case. I am frequently hitting the "home" button which resides where I'd find the "previous page" button most convenient.
My biggest gripe with the unit is Amazon's ridiculous inability to allow me to "gift" a Kindle book.
Each Kindle has a unique e-mail address, the ability to receive files (via wireless networks or Amazon's own Whispernet apparatus), and the user maintains control of who can and can't send files.
There's no way, currently, to, say, order a Kindle edition of book for my Mom (who also has a Kindle), and have it delivered to her electronically; one must purchase a gift certificate, send THAT, and then the recipient redeems it and downloads something.
The inability to order and deliver specific content to the Kindle seems like a gaping flaw in the design. I can order and deliver an ink-on-paper book as a gift for someone via Amazon; why is it harder to instantly deliver a digital book from the same place?
At the outset, while I see the value of digital content -- be it webcomics, ebooks, or other such items -- I was concerned that a Kindle or other e-reader would become a toy I'd grow disinterested in after prolonged use.
I'm happy to say that's not the case; I've read more fiction in the past week than in the prior two months.
Also, my family and a friend all have registered our Kindles to the same account, which means we have an instant electronic book club; one can append notes to the text, sync them to the other readers, and create instant discussions or the spine for a more concrete discussion later, which has to be the feature I find the most compelling.
Naturally, it also has me thinking about mobile devices and comics. The iPad is an intriguing toy, though I find it less satisfying to use than most Apple products; Amazon provides a pretty effortless system for disseminating content to their device (as my bank account, suddenly depleted by my clicking and downloading books with abandon); there's no good, centralized place to download comics; each major publisher seems intent on backing their own horse, meaning, inevitably, users being forced onto multiple platforms for viewing their comics, or one side or the other losing the race and becoming the digital comic equivalent of the Betamax.
(Or, HD-DVD, for you whippersnappers.)
I doubt the iPad, in its current incarnation, is the ideal medium for digital comics (as its really a crippled laptop with a touchscreen), but I'm eager to see what people do with that format, that concept.
Interesting, to say the least.
Tomorrow, the final issue of The Shield is on store shelves, a fact that is both a relief and not inconsiderably melancholic.
From a purely technical standpoint, the pressure of a monthly book under my byline pushed me pretty hard, and one major outcome of it all is that I'm simply much faster than I used to be. (Issue 7 of the series, for example, was written in one, five-hour sitting, and is probably my favorite of the whole run.)
I'll miss Joe Higgins terribly, because he's exactly the kind of hero I have always wanted to write. His heroism is pragmatic, intelligent, and unironic; in many ways, Higgins is the kind of person I would like to be, and -- quite honestly -- am not.
Which brings me to the real stars of the show: the art team.
Marco Rudy is a profoundly talented illustrator; cheerful, engaged, communicative, and boundlessly enthusiastic. And the fact that he's so young leads me to one inescapable conclusion: Watch him closely. He's a major talent, and he's going to be a huge star in the comics field, very soon.
Mick Gray is one of the first inkers -- along with Klaus Janson -- whose work I could identify on sight, when I first started paying real attention to such things. His work with Mike McKone (on Punisher War Journal) was eye-opening, and when I learned his clean, crisp, unbelievably-precise line was to be applied to Marco's pencils on The Shield, I literally danced for joy.
Art Lyon -- who also brought his talents to JSA Vs. Kobra -- is also a treat to work with. We've only spoken a handful of times, but his investment in the stories we were telling was clear. Art brought a lot to the book -- all those crazy computer screen heads-up-display images in the Shield warsuit? That was Art. -- not the least of which was his fine sense of color and light, his willingness to experiment, and his enthusiasm for the project.
Thanks are also due to Cliff Richards (who stepped in on issues 4 and 8 to give Marco breathing room for the final push of the series); Wayne Faucher (who contributed inks), Sal Cipriano and Randy Gentile (who ably lettered the book); Richard and Tanya Horie (who also contributed color art); Francis Manapul and Sami Basri for their lovely covers; Brandon Jerwa, for his excellent Inferno and Fox stories; Greg Scott, Michael Gaydos and Michael Avon Oeming, for drawing them; and of course Rachel Gluckstern who kept our feet to the fire.
Too often, comics are perceived as a one- or two-man operation, but that's rarely the case, and if you enjoyed The Shield, it was because of all these diverse talents working toward a shared goal.
For that, you all have my profound thanks--my fellow creators, and those of you who shelled out your hard-earned cash to read Joe Higgins' adventures.
I miss letter columns in comic books.
There's something unbelievably charming in the notion of fans of a comic book, sitting at their desks, kitchen tables, classroom desk, or what have you, and penning an honest-to-God letter to the creators of a story or character.
(More charming are the letters from small children, directly to Superman or Spider-Man. I would burst with pride to have some young fan send a letter to The Shield.)
Obviously, there are much more immediate tools available today for such interaction: message boards, blogs, Twitter, and so on, and they do have their unique charms as well.
But with the greater availability of those tools, it seems like the signal-to-noise ratio has become increasingly unfavorable. For every useful critique (or, God forbid, word of praise for the creators), there are a million posts about how any given issue "sucks."
The pen-and-paper route tended to (and I'm sure I'm romanticizing a bit here) more thoughtful and gracious commentary, which certainly made the comics fandom I grew up with considerably more welcoming than the harsher, nastier tone to the modern online comics tribes. (Again, a gross generalization; I've found pockets of online fandom I find very useful, both as a writer and as a fan.)
As a kid, I found myself actively looking forward to some of the regular letter-writers, fans who seemed to have the time and energy to write in and comment on every book on the market. My favorite? "Uncle Elvis."
"Elvis" (who apparently later changed his nom de plume to "Daddy Elvis") seemed to have a comment for every book DC published (and had a particular affection, if memory serves, for GrimJack, as well), and they were consistently thoughtful and occasionally quite whimsical.
In essence, "Elvis" invented an pre-internet avatar for himself, and used it to not only develop some minor celebrity within the fan community, but also to create a steady interaction with the people who made the stories and characters he so clearly loved.
It was a uniquely print-era thing, really, and with the subsequent rise of the web as a communication and interaction tool (and the death of the letter column in all but a few mainstream comics), it's the kind of thing that can't ever happen in quite the same way again.
I miss it, honestly.
There are a few questions I'm frequently asked, either in interviews or when I meet readers at comic conventions and so on: "What made you want to write comics?" (or the companion question, "What was the first comic that got you hooked?") and "Where do you get your ideas?"
In general, most writers hate to answer that "ideas" question, because the graven-in-stone truth is: WE. DON'T. KNOW.
In my case, I think it all comes back to the first question, and my answer to it.
When I was in grade school, my family and I went on a vacation. I grew up on the East Coast, and it was fairly typical to pack the family off to, say, Florida (with the requisite stops at Disney or Busch Gardens). My family never did that. We rarely took family trips at all, save to visit family; we certainly never went to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.
My parents worked very hard, and for them, a vacation meant ignoring the phone, staying quietly at home and doing the things they loved to do, rather than the things required to put food on the table.
Mom needlepoints, works in stained glass, reads voraciously.
My father is a serial collector of hobbies; he's a skilled and talented magician (who still, in his professional role as a pharmacist, puts on "poison prevention programs" for pre-schoolers, in the form of a magic show); he plays guitar with enthusiasm and no small ability; he builds plastic model kits (his preference, World War II German armor in 1:72nd scale), researching them down to the smallest rivet and modifying stock kits to repair the errors in them.
(An aside: I have many fond memories watching my Dad working at his modeling bench; in one diorama of street fighting in what I presume is Berlin, he had cut 1:72nd scale brick rubble out of modeling clay, by hand.
My personal favorite of his projects is a diorama of a bored-looking Wehrmacht trooper, standing next to a parked tank, standing guard. Behind him was a stack of oil drums, and a small wooden sign. The sign -- handmade, in scale -- was lettered, also by hand, to read "No Smoking" in German. And, so small it is best viewed with a magnifying glass, a tiny cigarette in the guard's hand, the end slightly blackened. That, to me, is my Dad in a nutshell: sly and clever.)
So, it was rather odd when my family decided to have a "normal" vacation. Naturally, they chose a venue more "them," though: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. A working Colonial village -- candlemaking, chamber music, and so on.
I was eight or nine years old, if memory serves, and for me Colonial Williamsburg was akin to watching paint dry. For days. I could not possibly have been more bored.
The trip to and from Virginia, however, was an adventure. It was the first time I ever traveled via train. I even had my own compartment, located at the opposite end of the train from my parents. I remember a tremendous sense of intrigue, and freedom, and excitement. It was like being James Bond.
We had a brief layover each way, stopping off for several hours in Washington, D.C., so we hastily visited the Smithsonian; whereas Williamsburg had been excruciating in its boredom, the trip to the Smithsonian was the highlight of the vacation—I went from James Bond to Indiana Jones, spelunking through vast cities of ancient treasure.
Unfortunately, we only had a brief window of opportunity, so it was impossible to see much, but I remember loving the Air and Space Museum—gazing in awe at the Spirit of St. Louis, touching the moon rock, obsessing over the model of the USS Enterprise.
I was less enamored of the Natural History Museum (though I recall one room that was a giant honeycomb/bee hive. There was a monster-movie thrill there, being inside the buzzing hive).
On the return trip, my parents allowed me to choose some items from the gift shop. Time was getting short, and I had to choose from all manner of glittering loot. I ended up selecting a pen-sized telescope/microscope device (from which, back in James Bond mode on the train, I engaged in "surveillance"), some freeze-dried astronaut ice cream (awful, genuinely awful) and a book.
The book was The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics, and it was probably the most important book I've ever bought, in terms of impact on me.
It is a lovely volume, filled with reprints of very old comics, selected -- with impeccable taste -- by the editors (Michael Barrier and Martin Williams).
These weren't just reprints; they were photographically reproduced from the original stories; you could see the texture of the original newsprint, the paper yellowing from age.
It was wonderful, eye-opening stuff. I already liked comics (my father turned me on to his favorites: Batman, Green Lantern and Uncle Scrooge, despite my mother's disdain for the medium) but the material in this volume was light years beyond anything I'd ever seen.
Some of the obvious material was there: reprints of the first appearances of Batman and Superman, some Captain Marvel, some Plastic Man. I gravitated to the superhero stories, for sure, but I found the Little Lulu and Donald Duck (Carl Barks, of course) selections entertaining, as well.
Other stories were complete revelations: Basil Wolverton and George Carlson stories of incredible charm and whimsy; several Pogo Possum stories (which no doubt predisposed me to affection for Jeff Smith's much-later Bone tales). Sheldon Mayer's "Scribbley" was one of my favorites, blending fever-pitch slapstick with an almost autobiographical style. The book was also my first exposure to both Will Eisner and The Spirit as well as Harvey Kurtzman, and E.C. war comics.
More importantly, each section featured a brief history of the character or story, and the creators involved. I devoured those essays (which also contained my first exposure to Harlan Ellison, a writer who's work remains at the top of my reading pile; the editors wisely mentioned and excerpted his appreciation of George Carlson, which I later tracked down in my quest to complete my Ellison library).
I had always enjoyed comics, but for the first time, I realized actual people spent time and energy making the stories, just like I spent time and energy drawing and writing stories for myself.
It was a thunderbolt moment: Making stories can be someone's job.
Followed by another, even more subversive realization: If I work at it, making stories can be my job.
(What followed was a decade or more of being yelled at for reading books that weren't assigned, not doing my homework because I'd been figuring out how best to draw a particular scene, "not working to potential" and various other parental headaches.)
A year or so later, as a birthday present, I received a copy of a Fireside book of reprints of DC science-fiction comics from the 1950s, Mysteries in Space. Edited by Michael Uslan, the book was broken down into various chapters (each containing anywhere from one to seven stories, culled from Strange Adventures,Mystery in Space, and even Justice League of America and Detective Comics). Chapters ranged from "Aliens Visit Earth Today" to "Space Heroes of the Future."
The book reprinted several Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, and Murphy Anderson stories -- among dozens of other luminaries. Space Ranger, Adam Strange, The Martian Manhunter, Captain Comet, The Atomic Knights, Space Cabbie, Star Hawkins, Tommy Tomorrow and the Planeteers, the Museum of Space—concepts that burned themselves into my already-dizzied-by-Star-Warsbrain, and still burn brightly in my mind today.
(Lest you think that's hyperbole, let me assure you that I've never forgotten those pages; Reprinted in black and white in the introduction is a Mystery In Spacecover, featuring Ultra, The Multi-Alien, a character I'd dearly love to write today...and almost managed to, in Checkmate #17, in a scene that had to be cut.)
Between The Smithsonian Book of Comics Book Comics and Mysteries in Spacewas the skeletal structure and nervous system of American superhero comics.
That's the long answer to the "What made you want to write comics?" question. I wanted to add my name to the roster of people who made that particular kind of magic.
But there's a bit more to it.
The summer before I entered 8th grade, I was living with my grandparents. (My family was in the process of moving, and building a house, and the contractors had failed to meet deadlines. It was decided, rather than make me switch schools mid-year, I should live with my grandparents.)
It was a pleasant enough summer; I didn't know very many people, and I kept to myself, so I read a lot, a habit that persists to this day.
An employee at my father's drugstore happened by one evening, with two large boxes in the back of his pickup truck, a box for a full-size refrigerator and the container for a washing machine.
He pulled into the driveway, waved me over, and I helped him wrestle these bulky, ridiculously heavy boxes out of his truck and into my grandparents' garage.
He opened the first box and pointed inside. "Your dad says you like comic books. I've had these in my barn for a while and thought you might like to read them."
Inside the boxes were hundreds of old comics, the most recent perhaps from the late 1970s. They'd had their covers stripped; unsold books from the newstand at the drugstore, which should have been destroyed, but were instead tossed in a box and socked away for years.
The books were in awful condition, but they were all readable, and I spent that summer devouring every comic in those boxes.
There was lots of superhero material (including Charlton characters, but also the Dell heroes like Doctor Solar, Turok and Magnus, Robot Fighter), but there were also romance comics, westerns, war comics, funny animal comics, crime comics and more. And I read them all, cover to cover. Every page of story, every ad, every letter in every letter column.
If The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics and Mysteries in Space were the skeletal structure, then these boxes were the map to the genome of American comics.
When it comes to "where I get my ideas," I tend to remember those boxes of old, battered comic books. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I'm chasing that feeling of wonder that I experienced when I dove inside and wrestled out some forgotten, flawed gem of storytelling. Every page of gaudy costumed adventure, every moment of terror in the foxholes, or swooning romance were pretty heavily imprinted on me that summer, and ultimately, a lot of what I write is to satisfy that hunger for the "next, spine-tingling chapter!"
There's more to it than that; I tend to try and fill my head with "stuff"--I read voraciously, mostly current events and non-fiction, and eventually, with all that information sloshing around in my backbrain, eventually the dots start to connect. A half-remembered phrase from a news story on NPR connects with a passage from a recently-read copy of a non-fiction book and sparks other connections, other points of intersection between the information I've absorbed over the years.
Enough of those points of intersection occur, and suddenly an "idea" pops out. (That's about the best way to describe it; the process is rarely gradual for me. Normally it happens suddenly and brutally, like a sneeze or hiccup.)
I don't have a particularly good explanation for that alchemy; I visualize it as a bunch of pieces of popcorn flying around inside an air popper. Eventually, the velocity and angle fires the popped kernel into the bowl. Boom: there's an idea.
And from that point, the real work begins: taking that idea, running through the various permutations in which that idea can be spun into actual story, and then staring at the blank page until you find the point where you can fall inside it.
And then comes the struggle to make the magic happen again.
There's a bakery near where I live; it is very small, open at odd hours, and is perhaps a little shabby.
It makes, hands down, the best bread I've ever tasted. The husband and wife that run it—transplants from West Seattle who moved out here to the middle of nowhere to be near what I assume are elderly family members—are intelligent, kind people, and they excel at their job.
Furthermore, it is clear that they love what they do.
The bakery -- wi-fi equipped! -- makes a damn good cup of coffee, outstanding pizza and sandwiches, and it is always warm and welcoming, with the scent of fresh rosemary baking into lovingly hand-crafted rustic artisan bread.
Catch them at the right moment, when the bread is just coming out of the oven, you are afforded almost indescribable pleasure: steaming hot rosemary bread, with just a touch of butter that melts deep into the slice.
There's a movie theater in the town where I live. An old building, dating back to the 1920s. The screen is kind of small, but the sound system is amazing. A digital projector system was added a couple years ago.
They make fresh popcorn, and have reasonably priced concessions; the theater shows reasonably first-run pictures, for not a lot of money.
The woman that runs it does so as a labor of love; it was her first job as a teenager, and a few years ago, when the theater was run nearly into the ground by the manager hired by the town (the town owns the theater, it turns out), she and her husband convinced them to let her fix the place up.
Despite flooding and occasional break-ins, the theater has been gradually improved. There's a long way to go -- there's some weathering and wear on the ceilings, the seats are old and a little threadbare.
But it's a lovely venue to watch a film. Dark, filled with the aroma of popcorn, with good sound and decent picture. The building bleeds history, from the handpainted decorations on the ceiling, to the gorgeous chandeliers. The doors at the entrance are solid, good wood, with polished brass pushbars that literally gleam.
Often they host concerts; last year, my wife and I saw Pearl Django perform Hot Club jazz for a measly ten bucks per ticket, a show that lasted almost two hours.
There's a coffee shop in town. It caters to the local agricultural community, with unusual hours (7 am to 3 pm). It's not fancy, but its warm and the waitresses know everyone.
The food isn't fancy either: standard diner fare, a touch overpriced.
But the portions are huge (there's one burger that I swear is almost as big as the plate) and they make astonishingly good hash browns.
Coffee is rich and dark and delicious, and it comes in plentiful supply, for a dollar. (I write a lot here; almost every issue of The Shield was written at the Corner Café.) There are regulars there, mostly senior citizens arguing politics and local current events; a retired science teacher-turned-local musician drinks his coffee and balances his checkbook, or argues arrangements of classic rock tunes with his bandmates.
Until last year, an elderly woman -- clearly in the throes of dementia -- would wander in, argue with the waitresses or the former owner, or say inappropriate things to other patrons.
But every day, the owner (who sold the Café a few months back, with the proviso that the current staff be kept on) would make sure she got breakfast and lunch and a large glass of orange juice.
Never once did I see money change hands; he just took care of her, because it was obvious her people weren't.
There are treasures all around. even in places like where I live: rural, desperately poor, geographically isolated, yet there are these small, unassuming gems, pockets of kindness and warmth and welcome; there are special places.
Find some of your own, and enjoy them deeply.
Such treasures rarely last; the economic downturn of the last year has taken a toll here, as — I suspect — it has everywhere.
There's an edge of sadness to the bakers, who are trying to make a living in a community that is suffering from record unemployment.
The movie theater is only open a few nights a week, and often I've been turned away because there aren't enough tickets sold to pay for running a film.
The coffee shop is under new management, who are gamely trying to keep the place afloat, but I'm in here every day, and I don't see a lot of new faces. Everyone is putting on a brave face, but there's a grim undertone to it all--expanded hours tried and failed, some minor physical improvements to the building have been made, but the menu has been somewhat truncated and portions have gradually crept down in size a bit, with a modest bump in price.
These gems don't last, which is tragic, because they define a community. They delineate the contours, the heart and soul of a place.
Find your own and enjoy them before they're gone.
Over the last few months, I've been asked about the JSA Vs. Kobra miniseries I wrote, and so, I thought I'd cull some of those responses down to a kind of "behind the scenes" post as the inaugural scribblings on my new blog.
To start, I'd been asked to take what Ivan Brandon had done in Faces of Evil: Kobra, and up the stakes, really pushing Jason Burr, the new head of Kobra, into places we'd not seen before. Kobra was always kind of a silly group -- in a delightful way -- but had become pretty spooky under Greg Rucka's handling (on Checkmate), and then Ivan's work made it even spookier.
So that was the primary mission: take what had come before, and push it into an even scarier, bleeding-edge, twenty-first century threat.
Hopefully, the series succeeded on that score.
It's been a few months since I finished writing chores on JSA Vs. Kobra: Engines of Faith, and there's been a few lingering aftereffects. Notably, I do still find myself -- watching the news, reading the paper, listening to the radio -- to filter whatever stories I encounter through Jason Burr's eyes. Find a science news story about a bombing, or a crash, or a sniper attack, or a dead star encased in diamonds? What would Jason do with that bit of news.
It's a bit unnerving.
On the other hand, the series did let me scratch a couple of storytelling itches I've had for a while. The supertanker sequence in issue 4 (possibly my favorite issue of the series) was directly influenced by a fan-damn-tastic book, "The Outlaw Sea." Langeweishe's book is a tense, terse look at the world of modern maritime piracy and I commend it to your attention.
Obviously, the bit in issue two with the "strangelet generator" had some inspiration in contemporary science.
The only holdout from my aborted Checkmate run survived in Ariadne's "exfil" plan, using Checkmate procedures against the heroes. I'd wanted to do a scene like that for a long time, so it was a ton of fun to be able to finally execute on it.
(Also fun to model the Kobra traitor, the pilot of the plane, on my good friend Larry White. He really does grin like that, but the snake eyes don't typically manifest.)
I've always had a soft spot for the good Dr. Erdel, ever since I read the first appearance of the Martian Manhunter in an old, old Fireside edition of reprinted DC sci-fi stories from the 1950s. (This was also my first exposure to Adam Strange, a character I'd kill for a chance to work with.)
The Code Zoo material had an interesting genesis; originally, it had been included in Checkmate 17 as something cool, and a way to justify the eventual re-emergence of the GI ROBOT (in issues 23-25). At some point during the writing of Checkmate 17, I was asked to provide a rationale for the "escape" of Brother Eye code (at the time, it was reportedly something to do with Countdown).
Over time, whatever the reason for that "escape" was, it changed. So, scenes in Checkmate 17, in which there are odd "power fluctuations" in The Castle's defense generators, were part of an elaborate scheme I'd concocted, simply to provide whoever was writing whatever with an excuse for Brother Eye to escape back into the wild, were no longer needed.
(I did actually have a whole methodology planned out, something about Brother Eye managing to manipulate power flow in a tiny circuit in such a way as to create a crude wireless "modem" of sorts, allowing the code to transmit itself into Checkmate's systems, and from there, back into the world.)
That was a happy sequence of events, as The Code Zoo played a critical role in the pages of FInal Crisis: Resist, but that left many of those rogue sentient and semi-sentient A.I.'s out in the DCU, running wild.
It was during the construction of the original outline (in a chapter that was completely revised; issue 3 was to be set in Keystone City, originally, not Opal City) that I hit on the idea of the Code Zoo as a weapon for Jason Burr. Who better to locate them, and who better to turn them into a serious terrorist weapon?
But that also gave me a great way for Sasha Bordeaux to be restored to health, and that was ultimately the moment I was driving the whole series toward: if there are two people in the DCU who deserve a happy ending, it's Michael and Sasha.
That's sort of the tip-of-the-iceberg process for several of the storytelling decisions I made in writing the series, generally down to "I always wanted to write a scene like that, how do I make it work?".
Others were more organic; the key moment in issue 4, in which we see several of the tools Jason had acquired being put to use in the subway tunnels under Fawcett; the Code Zoo (which had sifted the necessary arcane knowledge from paranormal databases around the world, to give him the power word, "Shazam!"; and to find the necessary confluence of ley lines that let him enter the subway tunnels themselves); the Erdel Gate, to make his getaway with a shard of the "Anger" statue; and so on.
That all came from a conversation with artist Don Kramer, who mentioned in passing that he really liked drawing Jakeem Thunder. Add a boy with a pet Thunderbolt to the subway tunnel that produced Captain Marvel? Let's just say it hit like a bolt of lightning, that scene.
Hope you enjoyed the series as much as I enjoyed writing it.