Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Moments from Avengers: Endgame

There's a thousand memes with Sean Bean, from Fellowship of the Ring, where it's a paraphrase of "One does not simply walk into Mordor." To take that to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), one does not simply review Avengers: Endgame.

Seriously, what can anyone really say about this movie? For me, likely for most of us, Avengers: Endgame brought to a close a series of 21 movies over 11 years in an wonderfully emotional, thrilling, intimate, and beautiful way.

So I'm not really going to review the film, per se, just highlight some moments I really appreciated. The list is random and as they occurred to me.

Spoilers will be given...because how can you not?

Cap Stands Alone

In a movie full of epic scope, the image, in silhouette, of a battered Captain Ameria standing alone against the hoard of Thanos. There was a moment when I thought he'd say "I could do this all day" but it likely would have fallen flat. There will be long-lasting images taken from this movie and will become shorthand for sections of this movie. I suspect this will be one of them.

The Marvel Calvary

Immediately after, the radio in Cap's ear sparks to life with a voice. It's the Falcon.

And then...

In a movie franchise full of incredible set pieces, the arrival and re-emergence of all the heroes might rank as the best. Goosebumps rippled over my skin and the tears came. Heck, they came often in this film, but that's what I expected. That moment, when everyone returned to stand with Captain America...holy cow! If we waited 11 years and 20 movies to get Endgame, then we waited something like six hours (all of Infinity War and 2/3 of Endgame) for this moment, it was so worth it. My theater broke out in applause.

And then Captain America's call to action: "Avengers...Assemble!"

The Ladies Carve a Path

That moment, when Peter Parker relinquishes the Iron Man version of the Infinity Gauntlet and he questions how Captain Marvel will get the gauntlet to the time machine, and then all the female heroes descend and stand in one remarkable scene. If that doesn't end up a poster.... I wasn't the only one who said out loud "It's the ladies!" My theater erupted in applause as these warriors carved a path through the bad guys!

Stark's Last Words

Going in to the theater, I pretty much knew either Stark or Cap would sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I had an outside idea that it would be both of them, but having Stark basically pull a double-take on Thanos was brilliant.

And those last words: "I am...Iron Man." Again, perfection.

Stark and Parker Reunion

Months from now, when the DVD of Endgame is out, I'm hoping to learn a couple of film-making facts. One, did they purposefully edit Black Panther as the first hero to emerge as a direct nod to his groundbreaking movie? Maybe, but well deserved. But it's the second thing I'm really wondering: Did they re-shoot/add an extended version of Parker and Stark's reunion. In Infinity War, Parker's death hit really hard.

But I also liked that it was only Parker and Pepper Potts with Stark at the end. I didn't want all the heroes to line up to say good-bye. Like Stark himself said early on to Pepper, "It's always been you."

Stark Meeting His Dad

In a movie that literally had everyone in it, Stark meeting his dad was a natural. Just like Marty McFly telling his future parents about raising him, I loved that Howard asked Tony about being a father, and that he, Howard, already loved his unborn child. As a parent, I knew that sentiment as truth.

Stark's Ending Narration

More tears. Of course Robert Downey, Jr. had to have some of the final words. It was him that kicked off the MCU and he now draws the curtain closed on this incarnation of it. That he was talking to his daughter, a daughter who would grow up with him and, more importantly, that he would not be around to see grow up, was heart-wrenching.

As a dad, that really got me.

"I love you 3000." A last message to his beloved daughter.

Lang's Daughter

Speaking of daughters, the reunion of Paul Rudd's Ant-Man with his daughter, now aged five years was marvelously done. She thought him dead, and there he was on her doorstep, un-aged. He, not knowing what happened, seeing living proof in the form of his own child. And that they were there, with Hope, at the end.

The Extended Ending

Like Return of the King, a story this epic needed more than one ending. Glad to see them all.

But Steve's last scene, as an old man, having lived his life with his favorite girl, man that was the happy ending this film series deserved. A man who gave all for his country got rewarded in the most satisfying way.

And that last shot of the movie, with him and Peggy Carter, finally getting that promised dance back in 1945? Perfect ending to a magnificent movie.

A Call for More?

I rarely care about all the little details behind a franchise such as the MCU. I'm content with what I see on screen. And I'm of two minds about what I'm about to say. But how cool would an anthology of short stories and/or a comic series be just telling the six stories of Steve returning all those stones. The conversation he would have with the Ancient One. Steve in space with the Guardians. Steve in Asgard. It would be kinda cool.

But I'm also cool with each one of us making up those stories. I don't need to know everything, but this struck me.


I have a few, and they're minor.

When Steve returned the Soul Stone, does Nat return to life?

Loki, in 2012, took the tessaract...where? And is he now still alive in the MCU?

Peter Parker. Okay, so we have a five-year time jump, right? So how's he still in high school?

Also, he seemed to say something about being gone for five years. Where exactly were the heroes for five years? Like Stark faked out Thanos, did Doctor Strange somehow put a spell over all the heroes who would turn to ashes at the end of Infinity War?

Steve and his other life. So, he lived his life in our time, right? So he would have seen everything we saw in these 21 movies, right? So he'd be there to see Stark become Iron Man, or watch CNN as Captain Marvel made her presence known in the 1990s. So, he'd just let all that stuff go on without interfering because he knew all would be fine, right?

And what about kids?


Anyway, just a few random thoughts on what may well be the best movie of 2019.

Well, until Star Wars IX.

But that's the thing. The MCU I have consumed as an adult. I started with Star Wars as a child. There's likely going to be a push/pull dynamic between the two. Heart and head. They'll both be my #1/#2 movies of the year, but Rise of Skywalker already has a high bar to clear considering fan expectation. Now, it has competition on how to end a series.

Tune in Tomorrow...

For a different kind of New Year's Day.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Favorite Songs by Year - 2019 Edition

I saw a tweet by writer/podcaster Marc Benardin last week in which the exercise was to choose a favorite song for each year you've been alive. Easy. The only caveat: you can only choose one song per artist. Not easy.

You see, I am a hard-core fan of my Four Pillars of Rock. They are, in chronological order of how I discovered them: KISS, David Bowie, Chicago, and Bruce Springsteen. For each one of these bands I could pick a favorite song per year. Mostly. But with this exercise, that was off that table. Then comes the real question: what song do you pick for your favorite bands? Throw in Genesis and Sting into this conundrum as well. I went ahead and applied this rule to composer John Williams because, let's be honest: I could easily select fifty great pieces of music by the composer of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There were some years in which the favorite song leaped into my head (1969, 1999, 2015, 2016). Other years in which I had to select a song that I liked but don’t love (2011). Then there were years (like 1975, 1977, 1984, 1989, 2004, 2016) in which there were so many good songs I ended up having to cast aside songs I truly love and listen to constantly.

But what ended up happening was by restricting the number of songs I could select, it actually ended up becoming a more freeing exercise. For example, if I could not choose Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" fin 1970, then I was now able to choose a Beatles song.

So, here's my list, broken out by decade, with notes on a few.

1968 - All Along the Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
1969 - Introduction - Chicago

1970 - Let It Be - The Beatles
1971 - One Fine Morning - Lighthouse*
1972 - Supper's Ready - Genesis
1973 - Band on the Run - Wings
1974 - Miles Out to Sea - Slade
1975 - 100,000 Years (live) - KISS**
1976 - Hotel California - Eagles
1977 - Star Wars, Extended Version - Meco (aka Disco!)***
1978 - Summer Nights - Grease soundtrack
1979 - Rainbow Connection - Muppet Movie

*Another favorite horn rock band out of Canada. I take a daily walk around my office building and this song is one of the ones I choose often.

**Not my favorite KISS song, but if I have to choose only one tune, here, I get an 11-minute tune with Paul's singing, Gene's bass solo, Ace's guitar solo, and a Peter drum solo. Plus, Paul's stage rant.

***I love the disco version of Star Wars, and this 15-minute song gets every major theme from the movie. Plus disco!

1980 - Back in Black - AC/DC
1981 - Under Pressure - Queen and David Bowie
1982 - Hooked on Classics
1983 - Separate Ways - Journey
1984 - Heaven - Bryan Adams
1985 - The Power of Love - Huey Lewis
1986 - Livin' on a Prayer - Bon Jovi
1987 - I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - U2*
1988 - Lead Me On - Amy Grant
1989 - The End of the Innocence - Don Henley

*Brilliant Disguise was the song that turned me onto Springsteen, but it doesn't make this list.

1990 - Silent Lucidity - Queensryche
1991 - Enter Sandman - Metallica
1992 - Pull Me Under - Dream Theater
1993 - Rock and Roll Dreams Come true - Meat Loaf
1994 - Singin’ with the Big Bands - Barry Manilow*
1995 - Peace Prayer - Clarence Clemons
1996 - Christmas Eve (Sarajevo) - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
1997 - Follow Me - Pat Metheny Group
1998 - Basic Instructions - Burlap to Cashmere
1999 - Desert Rose - Sting

*I could have easily selected The Brian Setzer Orchestra's "Lady Luck" but the historian in me is drawn to Manilow's recitation of famous big bands in this tune.

2000 - Absolute Beginners (live from Bowie at the Beeb) - David Bowie*
2001 - The Middle - Jimmy Eat World
2002 - The Rising - Bruce Springsteen
2003 - It's a Groove, This Life - Robert Lamm
2004 - Black Crow - Diana Krall
2005 - Mother India - Caedmon's Call
2006 - Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
2007 - One More Night With You - Brian Setzer Orchestra
2008 - Sister Lost Soul - Alejandro Escovedo
2009 - Haven't Met You Yet - Michael Buble

*Absolute Beginners (1986) is probably my favorite Bowie song, and this live show is my favorite concert he's released. Only bad thing: Had to jettison The Howland-Imboden Project's "Inching Towards..." (2000), but I got the Bon Jovi song on 1986.

2010 - City Noir - John Adams (as performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic)*
2011 - I Am Made of You - Alice Cooper**
2012 - Cinnamon Tree - Esperanza Spalding
2013 - Give Life Back to Music - Daft Punk***
2014 - Gimme a Feelin' - Ace Frehley
2015 - Uptown Funk - Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson
2016 - Put Your Money on Me - The Struts****
2017 - Cumberland Gap - Jason Isbell
2018 - On the Soul Side of Town - Tower of Power
2019 - In and Out of Love - Perfect Plan*****

*Saw a performance of this classical piece on PBS and was hooked. Even got a chance to see Adams conduct the Houston Symphony Orchestra doing this work. Turned me on to modern classical music.

**Here's ironic timing: as of 4 January 2019, I had never heard this song or album. But I love it. This song, with its dramatic entry of electric guitar, is everything you'd want to hear in an Alice Cooper song.

***Had never heard of Daft Punk, but I bought this album because of this song. The entire album is one of the best of this decade.

****This was THE song that turned me onto The Struts. In fact, it was purely the opening chord. This will likely be my favorite song of the decade, edging out Uptown Funk by a hair. And, in a week, I finally get to see the band live!

*****As of 26 April 2019, with the debut of the new Bruce Springsteen song, "Hello Sunshine," the category of Favorite Song of 2019 is now over. One word review: Gorgeous.

It's been three years since I had an emotional reaction to a song on first listen. That one, The Struts' "Put Your Money on Me," was joy. This one was simultaneously happy, melancholy, and nostalgic. It was like a song from my childhood I hadn't heard in decades, yet it's a tune my fifty-year-old self experienced for the first time. I didn't roll a tear, but they were in there. And, as I listened to this song about fourteen times on Friday, the emotions came over me more than once. Still don't understand it, but I'm good with it. Beautiful song. Instant classic Springsteen song for me.

If this is any indication of how the rest of the new album is, then the contest for Favorite Album of 2019 is done.

Yet as much as I love that song, I'm still going to keep "The Rising" on this list.

I hope you enjoyed this list. Turns out, I did something similar back in 2017. I'd love to see your list. Post the link in the comments.

Tune in Tomorrow...

For thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chicago Transit Authority at 50

As a child of the 70s and a youth of the 80s, I had to come around to Chicago's origins. 1985 was the year I discovered Chicago. Chicago 17 was the then-current album, and it took me a moment to figure out why they titled it "17." For a time, I preferred the 80s sounds, but then I heard Chicago's first album. Now, fifty years later, it's my favorite of all their albums. Here's why.

A Spectacular Debut

First albums can be tricky and they usually come in one of two forms: fully-formed or the first step to something else. Take Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite rockers. While his first two records (Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) are good records for what they are, you could argue that it was only with his third record, Born to Run, that Bruce arrived. That is, he got on record what all the fuss about his live shows was all about. The same holds true for David Bowie, Genesis, Peter Gabriel (solo), and other rock acts throughout the years.

In the former category, certain acts spring from the speakers fully formed. The Beatles come to mind. Hendrix of course. The Doors, the Police, and KISS. The first records by these bands grab you by the collar and force you to reckon with them. This is what we are. We hope enjoy it. But if you don’t, get out of the way because someone else behind you does.

This attitude brims over during the 12-song sequence that is Chicago Transit Authority (1969). Regardless of all the changes that have occurred in the past fifty plus years, the eponymous Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. Some long-time listeners hear CTA now and lament the loss of one of the tightest bands in rock history. The seven members of Chicago, all in their early twenties, excelled at their instruments but, combined, created something greater than the sum of its parts. They created something magical. And it’s all there for the listening.

Seven Geniuses

When one thinks of Chicago, the one differentiator is the horn section. When the seven guys met, they had one mission: create a rock band with horns. Sure, other bands had horn sections but they were usually relegated to playing riffs in the background. Not so the trio of Walter Parazaider (saxes), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and James Pankow (trombone). Together, they made up the fourth “voice” of Chicago, alongside Terry Kath’s soulful cry, Robert Lamm’s smooth-as-silk voice, and Peter Cetera’s clear-as-day tenor. Together on CTA, these four voices take you on a whirlwind tour of what is possible in music. And it all starts with an introduction.

"Introduction" Has It All

“Introduction” is my favorite Chicago song. Period. End of story. And it’s the first track on side one of CTA. It’s a biography song, sung by Terry Kath, that lets the listener know who Chicago is and what they are all about. This one song almost has it all (the only things missing are Lamm’s and Cetera’s vocals). After two verses, you get this great syncopated rhythmic bridge by the horns over Danny Seraphine’s wildly improvisational drumming. After a short break, the song segues into a nice ballad with the lead “vocal” handled by Pankow and his trombone. Loughnane’s trumpet picks up where Pankow ends, melodiously taking the listener through an imagined summer landscape. And, lest you think Cetera is only a good singer of ballads, just listen to his moving and melodic bass lines throughout this slow section. All of this is merely prelude to Chicago’s ace in the hole: Terry Kath’s frenetic guitar work. This is where words like "blistering" and "scorching" come to mind as Kath gives the listener merely a taste of what’s to come on the rest of the record (and the next ten years of live shows). The rest of the song returns to a last chorus and then, the coup de grace: all seven instruments (including keyboards) join in on a final chord. The essence of Chicago is really all there, in one song. The cool thing is Chicago gave you 11 more ‘bonus’ tracks.

Robert Lamm Songwriting Prowess

Lamm’s piano skills are featured in the intro to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, a concert staple since the 60s and one of the most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. Is there a more recognizable trumpet riff in rock music?

“Beginnings” is next, with Lamm’s silky vocals hovering over Kath’s 12-string guitar strumming. Beautiful as a California beach. I remember July 4, 1988, when Chicago headlined the day-long concert. Something like 300,000 people, all jammed in a park, sang this song with the band. So good. And then there's the dueling trumpet/trombone battle. Never, ever, gets old.

“Questions 67 and 68” establishes Cetera’s tenor as a counter to Lamm and Kath and demonstrates, again, how the horns form the fourth voice. The horn break in this tune is easily in my Top 5 of them all. If you listen to just that section, you'll hear a mini-song, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. You can also hear a missed saxophone note that they kept in, proof that these songs were mostly one-takes. Adds to the charm.

The Guitar of Terry Kath

The twofer of “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” are a one-two punch in the gut at the brilliance of Terry Kath’s guitar playing.

As much as I love CTA now, I'll admit it took me a minute to come around to this song. But on a road trip back home to Houston in the late 90s, I listened to this song with new ears and it clicked. Now I understood. Now I got it. And this tune is among my favorite Kath songs. “Poem 58” is a ten-minute guitar jam surrounding a Lamm-sung love song. The background vocals of “I Do Love You” stayed in their subconscious, reemerging on the next record in “In the Country.”

“Free Form Guitar.” What can you say about that? It’s six minutes of Kath, a guitar, an amp, and noise. It’s a shot over the bow at the rock world saying that Hendrix and Jimmy Page, as brilliant as they were, were not the only guitar gods out there.

“South California Purples” is a straight-ahead blues jam, here featuring Lamm’s improvisation skills on the electric organ. After you have listened to the album version for awhile, check out the 15-minute versions on the fourth album, Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Back in 2003 when they remastered the Carnegie album, Chicago added a fourth disc of bonus material. There’s a second version of “South California Purples,” also clocking in close to fifteen minutes. It’s a treatise on guitar soloing and band cohesiveness. Chicago’s Latin-tinged cover of Traffic’s “I’m a Man”—complete with a 64-measure drum solo; yes, I counted one time back in the day—shows off their ability to take someone else’s song and make it their own.

Politics Right Out of the Gate

“Someday,” the second-to-last track, shows off a side of Chicago prominent in the early days but has gone by the wayside in the years since: political commentary. Yes, the band that sings about inspiration, hard habits to break, and big surprises used to talk about bringing down the system. Don’t think so? How about this quote from the liner notes of Chicago II: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of it's forms.”

“Someday” starts with a recording of the chants outside the Democratic convention in Chicago 1968. The chants—“The whole world is watching”—has its own rhythm which seamlessly blends into the opening drum beats of the song. The chanting reemerges later in the song, giving the listener the impression that Chicago the band agrees with the spirit of the protesters outside the convention hall getting beaten by the police. Some modern listeners will be sad that spirit died in Chicago. But look around. That spirit, the spirit of openness, of change, of the belief that the young really can change the world, died everywhere, not just in a band that now frequents the adult contemporary charts rather than the college music charts. The world changed, but Chicago persevered. (The chanting reemerges in the song "All the Years," on their long-lost, now-released 1993 album, Stone of Sisyphus. Here in this song, Lamm mourns the loss of that late-60s spirit and the opportunities lost.)

The last track is the coup de grace of CTA. “Liberation” is a 14-minute guitar jam. And I don’t use that word “jam” lightly. If Kath’s guitar work throughout the album teased at his prowess, if “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” was a one-two punch, “Liberation” is the knock-out blow. Just listen. You'll hear Kath going everywhere, trying different things, and Serephine’s drumming, Lamm’s keyboard riffs, and Cetera’s fantastic bass playing going along for the ride. The horns are mostly absent from this tour de force. But that’s okay. This is Kath’s time to shine and boy, does he shine brightly. As the song ends and you exhale, only then realizing you were holding your breath, read the liner notes about this song and you’ll find a whole new meaning of awe: This track was recorded entirely live. This performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut.

One note on the recording itself. I don’t know recording technology at all but the sound quality is such that you get the impression all seven guys were in the same room at the same time recording these songs. It’s a quality that isn’t there starting with Chicago II and onward and it certainly isn’t there in modern music. You get the organic listening experience with CTA. It’s one to cherish.

If you have one Chicago CD in your collection, don’t let it be a greatest hits compilation. You can hear all of those songs on the radio. Buy Chicago Transit Authority. Buy it for the great songs, the great vocals, the soaring horn charts, the frenetic guitar work. Buy it for the spirit of the times that wrapped up seven guys and made something special.

In an age where we all make lists (favorite movies, TV shows, books) and those lists often change and vary, Chicago Transit Authority has been my favorite Chicago album for years now. Once I was old enough to understand what they were trying to put down on tape—magic and time in a bottle—I realized how special CTA really was. And is. You just can’t escape the feel of this record. I was alive, barely, when this album was released but the spirit of the times lives on through this recording.

I have attempted to write my impressions of CTA but, honestly, the liner notes of their producer, James William Guercio, do a much better job of it. I’ll end with his quote:

The purpose of this commentary, however, is an attempt at documenting the complete rejection of any name label, title or verbal reference relative to the performance contained herein. Corporately as well as individually, this artist endeavors to be judged in terms of contribution alone rather than through the tag affixed upon it. The printed word can never aspire to document a truly musical experience, so if you must call them something, speak of the city where all save one were born; where all of them were schooled and bred, and where all of this incredible music went down barely noticed; call them CHICAGO.

Footnote: Once you’ve listened to CTA a few times, head on over to YouTube and listen to a 17 August 1969 recording of Chicago at the Fillmore West. It’s a gorgeous soundboard recording of the tunes from CTA as well as “new” songs they’re still working on for their next album, including “25 or 6 to 4,” still the epitome of a rock band with horns. "Poem 58" is the opening song! In fact, they are so new, they still call themselves Chicago Transit Authority, something they would abandon the following year. What you discover with the new songs is the band still working out the kinks and arrangements. For example, “Poem for the People” at the Fillmore is sung by Cetera. The official album version a year later has Lamm singing his own song. A magic time truly.

Tune in Tomorrow...

For a music list fifty years in the making.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 17

Well, it turned out to be a writing-centric week, capped off by a triumvirate of awesomeness yesterday: finished a book, heard a new Springsteen song (something like 14 times), and watched the final movie a decade in the making.

Writing Tips Are Always Welcome

Four of the six posts since last week's entry of the Year of an Indie Writer series focused on learning. Dean Wesley Smith discussed how writers think they've gone the 'wrong' way with a story, but authors are often the worst judges of our own work. I experience that literally this month.

I revisited lessons from pulp fiction legend Frank Gruber, and ended the week talking about the things we can actually control (part 1 and part 2). There's only so much over which we writers have dominion and it's best not to worry about everything else. Easier said than done, sometimes, but it'll ultimately prove beneficial.

Aztec Sword is Done

I mentioned last week I finished proofing the latest Calvin Carter novel, but felt it needed another chapter. Actually, it turned into four. But the story now feels complete with an ending I like.

But it was touch and go for the first half of the week. With a "only one more chapter" mentality, I realized I couldn't fit in all I wanted in one chapter. That gave me some heartache because I was not going to change my publication date of 1 May.

And yesterday, I put the last period on the book. Whew!

But what is it about?

Aztec Sword Description

Actor turned detective Calvin Carter stands on his favorite place--a stage--when armed bandits attack. Carter and his partner, Thomas Jackson, foil the robbery, and the surviving gunman snitches the name of the mystery man who hired the gang.

Both men soon die, taking their secrets to the grave.

Turns out, the entire robbery was an elaborate distraction. In the melee, a master thief with a unique calling card swipes a prized artifact: a macuahuitl, an Aztec sword, dating back to the Spanish conquest of the New World.

But when Carter and Jackson are assigned to track down and recover the sword, those men who know about the macuahuitl start dying, one by one. If Carter and Jackson aren't careful, they will be next.

Bruce Springsteen's New Song: Hello Sunshine

Well, the contest for Favorite Song of 2019 is over.

One word review: Gorgeous.

It's been three years since I had an emotional reaction to a song on first listen. That one was joy. This one was simultaneously happy, melancholy, and nostalgic. It was like a song from my childhood, yet it's a tune my fifty-year-old self experienced for the first time. I didn't roll a tear, but they were in there. Beautiful song. Instant classic Springsteen song for me.

If this is any indication of how the rest of the new album is, then the contest for Favorite Album of 2019 is done.

Just listen.

Avengers: Endgame

Saw it.

Loved it.

Perfect ending to a decade of movies.

How's that for a spoiler-free review?

Tune in Tomorrow...

For a special post about an album that turns 50.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Control the Controllables Part 2 - Are you having fun yet?

Yesterday, I wrote about controlling the controllables. That is, don’t fret about those things over which you have zero control. I listed all the things we have direct control over, but wanted to expand on one phrase today: “…The prose of the book itself.”

To be precise, the prose of the book are the actual words we choose. Yes, I get that and it’s 100% accurate. But how many of us actually have fun writing our stories? How many of us have a grin on our faces when we write a certain passage, or tears streaming down our cheeks, or actual pulse-quickening moments when our heroes are in peril? Perhaps of all the things over which we exert control, isn’t this the top?

Why do we write? Well, for some of us, it’s because we’re not good at anything else. But for many of us, isn’t it the thrill of the story? Isn’t it to escape?

I’ll tell you a little secret about myself: I escape in my writing. I have a good life and I’m immeasurably blessed. I have a day job that takes care of everything, but it would be really nice to write fiction for a living. I’m not there yet. Might not ever get there. And while I enjoy writing blurbs and descriptions, updating and tinkering my websites, blogging, and creating covers, the real thrill is the story creation itself. It’s the constant “what happens next?” moments throughout a manuscript as I’m telling myself the story at 4:30 am each morning. Those are the moments I live for. Those are the moments I have control over.

But you know what? They have control over me, too. I can feel my fingers speeding up and hear the clickety-clack of the keys as my heroes get into and out of a problem. It’s my favorite part of this entire process. Next is me sharing it with others. And there’s nothing more irritating than my morning session running out of time before I have to get ready for work and I’m not at the end of a scene. Most of the time, I don’t have any additional time that day to keep on with that scene. The end result is that I’m thinking about the ending of that scene all day long until I can again put fingers to keyboard and go. On those days, I’m actually held in a state of suspended animation.

I have a blast telling stories.

So, how much fun do y’all have writing your stories?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Control the Controllables

Why is it we writers and creators sometimes suffer from bouts of doubt? In my day job as a marketing writer, I’m never without things to do and proper procedures to do them. Dittos for thousands of other skills. But we creators still suffer.

Mine wasn’t horrible or earth-shattering. It stemmed from a couple of things. One was the diminishing of the natural high one gets when completing a story. I submitted a story to an upcoming western anthology and, if accepted, it’ll be published in the fall. And boy do I love this yarn. Enjoyed reading it aloud to my wife who also seemed to enjoy it—not always a given. She’s a spectacular first reader/listener because she’ll tell me like it is, especially if a story doesn’t work for me. The other thing that got me down for a time was the just-as-critical sequel to writing “the end”: what’s next? With my day job, I have a rather long commute and, as a result, my personal time is quite limited. I still carve out time to write, but this week was mostly a failure. It happens from time to time. I used to see how long I could go writing each day. Then I didn’t. Now, I’m wondering if I should just so I can maintain the writing muscle.

On the business side of things, there are always a ton of things to do. Most of the time, I actually enjoy them. In fact, I’m in the middle of planning my fall’s published output and into 2019. It’s a good schedule and one I hope will reap some dividends.

And that’s where some of my thoughts went to this week: the other end of the process. The future reader seeing a story of mine, seeing the cover, reading the blurb, and making the decision to spend money. I can’t remember where I recently heard the phrase “control the controllables” but it reentered the forefront of my head again this week. What do I have control over? The prose of the book itself, the descriptions and all the meta-data, the covers and how they look, and setting the price. That’s it. There isn’t a darn thing else I control. Well, there’s one more thing: where the book is located. I’ve recently gone wide again, so my stories are available in most major online bookstores.

Well, there is one more thing I can at least have a say in: discoverability. I can control how I market, where I market, how much I spend on marketing, and so forth. But at the end of the day, it ain’t up to me whether a person reads one of my stories. It’s all on them. I cannot control their thought pattern and decision making. All I can do—all any of us can do—is put the best product out there and see what happens.

I know this is all not earth-shattering or brand-new, but, every so often, we creators need to be reminded of what we can control. It’s also a good reminder that all of us creatives have those moments of doubt. Famed Batman artist Greg Capullo (@GregCapullo) wrote this tweet:

For those struggling artists out there, know that I struggle too. After decades of drawing for a living, there are days when it seems like I’ve forgotten how to draw! It sucks. You suck, I suck, we all suck! …sometimes.

New DC Comics writer, Brian Michael Bendis (@BrianMBendis) followed it up with “Seconded.”

You see? We’re all in the same boat.

See Part 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

More Writing Lessons from Pulp Writer Frank Gruber

When I reviewed THE PULP JUNGLE by Frank Gruber and how modern writers could learn from one of the most prolific authors of the pulp era. Reading through all the true struggles he endured to bust through and actually make it in 1934, I realized that I, in 2019, with a full-time day job, have it pretty good as I work at my writing craft and pursue my own goals.

But Gruber’s odyssey as a writer can also speak to us writers today. What follows are some key facts and quotes I took away from his book.

The Life of a Pulp Writer Wasn't Glamorous 

From August 1932 (when he arrived in New York) until June 1934 (when he sold the story that enabled him to break big in the pulp fiction market), Gruber wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

My takeaway: Yeah, he had it bad, real bad. I don’t. Not really.

The Big Break Comes When You Least Expect It

The Big Break came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

My takeaway: sometimes, your best work can emerge out of your brain and through your fingers in whole cloth. Don’t be afraid of going with it. I also mentioned something like that yesterday.

Income from Writing Along Can Fluctuate

His income in 1934 was less than $400 ($7,500 in 2018 money). In 1935, he made $10,000 ($188,000).

My takeaway: Yikes!

Just Keep Learning

Even after his Big Break, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

My takeaway: Always keep learning. Always maintain your contacts when you make them. You never know what will happen and with whom.

More Writing Equals More Selling Opportunities

Frederick Faust, the real man behind the famous pen name “Max Brand,” trained himself to write 14 pages every day, year after year. It added up to 1,500,000 words of fiction per year. It took him 2 hours each day. Then he would often drink.

My takeaway: Constant writing and constant production will produce material you can sell. Keep at it. We may not all type as fast as Faust and we may not all have 2 hours in our days, but we do have an hour or so. The words will come, and they will come faster and easier the more you do it.

A Takeaway Quote

"There is equality of opportunity. There is no equality of talent." Gruber said that about the days of yore. With independent writer opportunities, the field is even more wide open.

The story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (or Insert Your Own Personal Challenge)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes”. And he delivered. Only then did he discover he could. Then he did it over and over again.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Writer and the "Right" Way

In his Monday post, Dean Wesley Smith talks about the wrong direction for a writer. Like many of his posts, this one hit home.

Dean sees the Critical Voice as one with the sole objective of stopping the Creative Voice from having fun. The Creative Voice is the little child in each writer who only wants to tell stories. Critical Voice is the adult who keeps trying to say what the child is writing isn't good or isn't up to some vague notion of what will sell. Worse, we might write ourselves into a corner and, not knowing how to get out of it, might trash thousands of words as we rewrite ourselves back onto the "right" road. Or, most recently for me, wondering whether or not to publish a story that doesn't quite match what I've published to date.

Boy have I used that excuse more than once. And it has worked more than once. But like Dean wrote in his piece, how do we writers know we've gone in a wrong direction?

We don't. We have no clue what or how a reader will react to anything we've written. I recently had an experience like that.

When I posted the first chapter of a short story titled "Amber Alert" to my newsletter, I got some feedback. It was a different type of story, a modern crime story with a completely different vibe than the westerns or historical mysteries I usually write. I was actually a tad worried it wouldn't be greeted well. Granted, it wasn't going to stop me from publishing it, but I figured it might be a story that doesn't resonate.

Yet some folks really dug it. And they took the time to send me an email telling me so.

Looks like I was wrong. Why? Because a writer's job is to write stories. Promote those stories and get them out to readers. After that, it's out of a writer's hands. Then, and most crucially, write the next story.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Shazam Spoiler Special from Empire Podcast

Yet another entry in the improptu Shazam group of posts all resulting from the new Shazam movie that debuted earlier this month. For this one, however, you need to have seen the movie because all sorts of stuff is revealed.

The Empire podcast have an excellent run of interviews for the genre movies it covers. In the latest, host Chris Hewett gets director David F. Sandberg and producer Peter Safran behind a microphone and dives deep into the Shazam movie. No, not nearly as deep as the seven hours--yes, seven hours--Hewett and director Christopher McQuarrie spent discussion last year's Mission Impossible: Fallout (my review) but it still gets to the good stuff.

The highlights for me was the discussion about 1980s movies like Ghostbusters and how it influenced the 2019 Shazam film. Also they discuss that fabulous last scene of the movie and how a scheduling conflict actually created a better final shot of the movie. It makes what I wanted to see not as good or meaningful as what was actually filmed.

See what I did there? Told you what I wanted to tell you while revealing nothing.

It's a great interview. Then the usual Empire panel discuss the film in spoilerific detail.

If you enjoyed the Shazam movie and are interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, check out this week's Empire podcast.

Oh, and star Zachery Levi sat down with the podcast a few episodes back. If you don't already love this guy, this episode might win you over.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Avengers: Infinity War - The Re-Watch

Like all folks looking forward to the new Avengers: Endgame movie this coming Friday, I rewatched last year's Avengers: Infinity War on Netflix.

We all know how good this movie is, so I won't bother recapping the film. If you're a fan of the movie, you know the best parts. All of it? Yeah, a case can be made that's this is the culmination of ten years of movie making.

When you first watch the film, you're all into the action and the team-ups. Iron Man and Spidey fighting together in New York. The Guardians and Thor. Captain America and Black Panther standing their ground in Wakanda.

But the second viewing brings home the human factors to a much greater degree. Wanda having to sacrifice Vision. Peter Parker's death. Thanos killing Gamora. Actually, the thing that stood out last year when I saw this movie the first time--it was Thanos's movie and he wins--is even more obvious now. When we keep writing the history of CGI characters who really tug at your heartstrings, Gollum and Thanos will certainly top the list.

Josh Brolin is magnificent in this movie as the villain. And, like the best villains, you actually see why he's doing what he's doing. He's got a point. It's harsh, yeah, but you can at least understand where he's coming from. I imagine he was on set speaking the lines, stuffed into one of those motion capture suits, so he was able to interact with the other actors. I've love to hear an interview from him talking about the process.

Now that we've all see the Captain Marvel movie, the tag ending where Nick Fury calls Carol Danvers is much more meaningful.

You only have about five days before Avengers: Endgame debuts. Oh, and I still trust Doctor Strange. He told Tony--and us--that all we saw in Infinity War was the only way to win. But if the Strange told us this was the only way, Thanos also spoke the truth about the cost of the victory. It costs him everything.

How much will Thanos's defeat cost the Avengers? We only have days to wait. I'm seeing the movie Friday night...and leaving social media Thursday night. I don't want to be spoiled. I'll have a review next week, and I'll provide plenty of spoiler warnings.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 16

Crap, I need an extra chapter.

Proofing Aztec Sword

I wrote Aztec Sword last year and have read it through a couple of times. I check for spelling--and I always miss a few--word choice, the odd punctuation or misplaced word. You know. The usual suspects. Moreover, I start and keep a separate word file in which I outline the book as I go, noting the introductions of various characters and their descriptions, little nuggets I threw in about the characters, locations, and, the like. I also make note of where the text indicates I should start a new chapter versus merely a sub-section as in the original version. I also always include the end-of-chapter and end-of-section sentences so I know where my cliffhangers are.

Well, imagine my surprise that, upon re-reading this book again, my original ending seemed to lack something. It has been months since I last read this book, and dang it if I, as a reader, wanted an epilogue. So I'm writing one.

And I know that by writing this out in public, everyone can compare all the chapters of the book to the last chapter, but who cares? This blog series is my journey through a year of writing and publishing independently, and if I don't make a point to show certain trials and tribulations, then what good is it?

I wonder what that says about me the writer from 2018 and me the reader in 2019. I'd like to think my storytelling abilities have progressed in that time. Heck, don't we all hope that?

A Rod Serling Biography

Last week, I watched "The Comedian," the premiere episode of the Jordan Peele version of The Twilight Zone. It's on YouTube and it's free. Immediately after that episode, YouTube led into a short piece from CBS Sunday Morning talking about creator Rod Serling, Peele, and the massive undertaking it is to reboot a franchise such as The Twilight Zone.

My wife's a fan of Serling's other major television series, Night Gallery, and a thought came to mind. Serling wrote something like half of all Twilight Zone episodes and probably something like half of the Night Gallery episodes. As a writer myself, the feat is extraordinary, especially considering the quality of Serling's writings remained high.

That led me to the internet. Was there a biography of Rod Serling? Yup. And it was published just last year. Quickly I placed my order for Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination by Nicholas Parisi. It came in the mail on Wednesday and I'm only on chapter 1, but it looks to be precisely the book I want to read about Serling. I'll let y'all know later.

That Little Voice in Our Heads

Two separate blog posts jumped out at me this week, arguably talking about the same thing.

One is directly related to writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Thursday article on "Critical Voice" is a must read for all creative types. She talks about that critical voice that's in our heads and how it impedes the childlike nature of our creative brain. She quotes an article in which said critical voice is personified. Were that a real person, would you even want to talk to him or her? Then why the heck is that voice in our heads? She provides some answers.

On another blog entirely is Leo Babauta. I cannot remember how I ran across his Zen Habits blog years ago, but I have it linked up in my Feedly feed. This week, he wrote a piece entitled "The Universal Narrative: When You Feel Unworthy." Like Rusch's piece, he takes you through a thought experiment about how we often feel ourselves unworthy of things. Most importantly, he offers new habits we can develop to, hopefully, offset those unwanted feelings.

These two pieces go well together.

Quote of the Week

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.
- Leonard Bernstein

Considering I found a perceived defect in my book--and I do not plan on changing my 1 May publication date--Bernstein's quote is particularly apt. Guess what I'll be doing this weekend when not in church?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Pop Tarts vs. Trader Joe's Toaster Pastries

For the second installment of my Foods From Childhood series, I wanted to try Pop Tarts. Like I mentioned in my Cap'n Crunch episode, as a child, my sugar intake was restricted. I was a hyper boy, always chatting, always moving. With the Feingold Diet, my parents limited my intake of sugar, but that particular diet also included artificial colors and preservatives.

Pop Tarts fell nicely into both categories, especially the frosted kind.

And really, what other kind was worth eating?


As an adult, I watch what I eat pretty strictly. No, the irony's not lost on me that my parents implemented a low-sugar diet and now that I'm fifty, I realize the less sugar I consume, the better I feel. On my own, I've limited the amount of sugar I eat everyday. I love dark chocolate, and Trader Joe's has an excellent 85% dark chocolate bar. So when I saw a Trader Joe's version of a Pop Tart, er, toaster pastry, I bought it.

Then I noticed the vending machine at the office had strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts. With a quick $1.25 deposited, I had my Pop Tarts. Now, the obvious thing entered my head: Taste Test!

The Ingredients

Into the toaster went the Pop Tarts and the pastries from Trader Joe's. The Pop Tart had white frosting with colored sprinkles dotting the top. The toaster pastry featured a light brown frosting.

Also, I noticed the Pop Tart was noticeably thinner.

While I waited, I compared the ingredients. As you can imagine, the pastries from Trader Joe's listed items I could actually pronoun and knew from which they came. On the Pop Tart? Well, there were a LOT more ingredients, and I didn't recognize them all. Plus, you had the oddball coloring agents red 40, blue 1, and others.

What the heck are those? A cursory internet search will reveal some troubling findings.

So Trader Trader Joe's wins on ingredients.

The Appearance

Taking both pastries out of the toaster, the thinness of the Pop Tart nearly toppled it over as I moved it to my plate. Trader Joe's pastry held its shape easily.

I broke them both in half, and the bright red center of the Pop Tart burst out. Looks like red 40 did its job. The Trader Joe's pastry's filling was noticeably darker, not the red of the Pop Tart. So, for visual appeal, the Pop Tart clearly wins.

The Taste Test

I took a bite of each, Pop Tart first. The thinner crust kind of crumbled in my mouth. The taste was nice and sweet, but not overly sweet, surprisingly. The strawberry flavor was exactly what you'd expect.

But when I tasted the Trader Joe's pastry, I experienced something quite different. The thicker crust held its shape until my teeth did their thing. I realized the brown frosting was more maple-syrup like. The strawberry felt fresher in my mouth. And it was less sweet, but way more flavorful.

Clear winner: Trader Joe's Toaster Pastry.

Unlike Cap,n Crunch cereal which I continue to enjoy, I think any hankerings I have for a toaster pastry--which is so rare that before this little test, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had one--I'll be driving to Trader Joe's.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Superman the Movie: A Forty-Year Appreciation

[With the recent success of Shazam, I thought I'd revisit the first major superhero film.]

“You’ve got me! Who’s got you?”

Is this the best line in a superhero movie? Forty years on, when I think of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, this is the first thing that comes to mind. And the helicopter rescue sequence associated with it. I waited in rapt attention for this scene because it is likely the quintessential Superman moment. It did not disappoint last night. In fact, as the goosebumps rippled over my arms, I got a tad emotional.

This was Superman.

The tagline of the movie was “You’ll believe a man could fly.” Here’s the thing with Christopher Reeve’s performance: You’ll believe he really is Superman. Maybe it was my ten-year-old self seeing this hero on the big screen for the first time, but of all the actors who have played Superman, Reeve is the one who made me believe it was actually a man from another planet. Who was also from Kansas. And it did it all with acting. No CGI. No special effects. Just Reeve, in costume, changing his voice and posture, making you believe Clark Kent and Superman were different people.

Speaking of Clark, Reeve sells himself as the bumbling country boy from Kansas to a T. I really loved his sly winks *to himself* when he, say, catches the bullet or when he shows up, as Clark, in Lois’s apartment after flying over the city with her as Superman. There’s a reason Reeve’s version of Clark is also probably the best out there…although Henry Cavill, if given a chance, could have done it well. But, again, he would be channeling Reeve, too.

He and Margot Kidder exudes chemistry. I really appreciate how she, in 1978, portrayed Lois Lane as a modern woman, smoker, working in a newsroom which had been a mostly males club for so long, but one who still needs a little help when she’s hanging out of a helicopter. She’s always out for the hustle, making sure she’s on the front lines. The rooftop interview scene is so good. You even get Superman basically falling in love with Lois on screen. Heck, both of them. And he’s not saving her from some giant robot. They are just talking and acting. Let’s be honest: in this day and age, when you have lots of side projects on TV, how cool would it have been to have had a Lois Lane TV show with Kidder?

I’m not sure who made the call—actor or director or scriptwriter—but, for my money, having Lex Luthor be humorous is genius. Yes, it’s likely a product of the times, but Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor is probably the best. The only other one I truly enjoy is Clancy Brown’s sinister version in Superman: The Animated Series. But Hackman’s Luthor is sinister in his own way. When he delivers the line “By causing the deaths of innocent people,” you honestly believe it. I enjoyed seeing him make deductions and use his intelligence to figure out Superman’s weakness. Lastly, In an age when every aspect of a franchise has its own backstory, I don’t always need a backstory. But I would enjoy at least learning how Luthor and Otis got together.

Oh, is Ned Beatty’s Otis the only henchman in superhero movies who has his own theme song? It reminded me of the theme for Jabba the Hutt which would arrive five years later.

The music. John Williams was at the height of his powers in 1978. Star Wars and Close Encounters and Jaws were already under his belt. So were three Oscars. I haven’t heard the entire score is so long that it came out of the speakers fresh and new. Look, I know his Star Wars theme, his Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, and the ET flying theme are all good and light and positive, but is it possible to hear the Superman March without a grin on your face? I don’t think so. The Krypton music is eerie and otherworldly. The love theme is lush and romantic. And in sitting through the credits listening to the music, I found myself awash in greatness. I know there are folks who think Superman is the best soundtrack of Williams’s career. While I still hold Empire Strikes Back as my personal favorite (with Star Wars and Raiders close behind), I can certainly see their point.

On the subject of Krypton, I was again reminded of the very 70s-ness of it all. I have a great fondness of 70s SF films pre-Star Wars. The Krypton sequence fits perfectly in that pocket. Ditto for the flying sequence as Kal-El rockets off to earth. Oh, and the training montage.

As the opening credits rolled, I leaned over to my friend and said Superman: The Movie hit the jackpot with casting. Marlon Brando, of course, but Terrence Stamp, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Hackman, Beatty, Valerie Perrine, and Susannah York. To say nothing about then newcomers Reeve and Kidder. I can’t think of a single character who needed to be recast.

The first hour of the show is near perfection. We see Krypton, the trial and banishment of Zod, Ursa, and Nan (and the setting up of Superman II), and then the destruction of the planet. Now, forty years later, as a parent, the longing and desperation of Jor-El and Lara sending baby Kal into the void with only the hope that he would be safe is poignant. But the Smallville scenes? Holy cow. Those hit me. And those shots of Clark and Jonathan, his death, the funeral, and then Clark and Martha out in the field? You honestly forget you’re watching a superhero movie. Brilliant stuff.

Alas, the movie is not without its flaws. With an additional forty years of consuming stories—including writing my own—much of the latter half of the film is disjointed. It would have been so much better if there were words on screen like “Three week later…” or some such. As it is, the film comes off as almost happening in the same day. Which it doesn’t, but it feels that way.

But all that is nitpicking, especially when you get the best of both worlds: you get to see Superman doing super things—helping the bus on the bridge; making sure the railroad doesn’t derail; making a new dam—but then he turns back time and it’s all good. And with Luthor’s intelligence, you ever wonder if he figured out Superman changed time? Or would he merely realize his plans were foiled? Ditto for the other characters, too.

But that’s neither here nor there. They’re just fun things to ponder.

Forty years. Hard to believe and, yet, not. I was ten when I saw it in 1978. I’m nearly fifty now. Lots of life, lots of events, lots of other Superman stories, both in print and on screen. But this film remains a gold standard in superhero films and Superman films in particular. I’m keen on finding and watching the Donner cut of Superman II. I’ve never seen it, but always enjoyed Superman II. Superman The Movie is that perfectly placed film and story that straddles two eras: the Golden and Silver Age (and a little Bronze) of comics before the current era we’re in. It’s like a love letter to all that came before. From the vantage point of forty more years, it’s stature grows even more. Heck, as the credits rolled last night in the theater, applause erupted from the gathered few—young and old alike.

We now live in a golden age of superhero films. There’s nothing filmmakers cannot do when you couple their imagination with computer technology. Make no mistake: it’s awesome when we get to see Cavill’s version of Superman fly or punch Zod or slam into Doomsday. And I really enjoy The CW’s Superman as played by Tyler Hoechlin. And I watched Lois and Clark loving it…mostly. Didn’t watch Smallville.

But I think we can all agree that when you think of a live action Superman, one name comes to mind: Christopher Reeve. He was and is and will forever be Superman. He made me believe a man could fly in 1978. Forty years later, he still made me believe he’s the best Superman. And, despite its flaws, Superman The Movie is the best version of Superman on film.

[This was originally posted on 26 November 2018 over on my author site.]

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

When Cutting Up a Comic Book Was Charming

Recently I was reading through a comic published in 1976 and I was struck by something: DC Comics actively encouraged kids to destroy their comics.

Bicentennial Mania

To help celebrate the American Bicentennial summer, DC Comics published a total of 23 issues in June, July, and August 1976 with a special banner across the top that read “DC Comics Salutes the Bicentennial” in red, white, and blue. In the upper right corner was a number. Nice, huh?

Well, inside there’s a house ad. Here it is.

If you take a read, you’ll see that kids back then could get a free Superman belt buckle *if they cut out and sent in at least 25 cover headings*!

Yes, you would actually have to cut up the covers to 25 brand-new comics.

I did this sort of thing for Star Wars figures when I cut out and sent proofs of purchases to get my Boba Fett action figure. But those were cardboard boxes.

This situation was comic book covers. I’d like to think that, even then, I wouldn’t have done that. And even then, the comic book collector market was in full swing. Did they just not think comics from 1976 would be worth anything?

The Charm Factor

But here’s what I like about it now. I like the charm factor of it all. Over the decades, companies always had drives like this. “Eat 5 boxes of [insert cereal] and send in the box tops for [insert cool toy].” Yes, campaigns like this promoted binge buying, but it was actually kind of fun, no?

Do companies even do that anymore, or has our culture just moved on to kids simply asking parents to buy them whatever they want? Not sure, but at least by buying 25 DC Comics in the summer of ’76 or however many box tops of cereal, you felt like you were actually working for your prize.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Twilight Zone (1985) - Gramma

After watching and enjoying "The Comedian," the first episode of Jordan Peele's 2019 revival of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, I told my wife how much I enjoyed an episode from the first revival in 1985. With the internet being a thing, a quick search landed on a version on YouTube. So, still in the afterglow of the new series, we went back in time.

And, like a Twilight Zone episode itself, I should have been careful what I wished for.

Good Pedigree of Creative Talent

Gramma is based on a Stephen King short story. The story was adapted by Harlan Ellison. Yeah, the Harlan Ellison. With a pedigree like that, the episode should have been better. Well, it was back in 1985. It's mostly okay, just not knock-it-out-of-the-park territory.

A Standard Horror Story

The story centers around a boy of probably twelve. His name is George, and his mom leaves him alone with his bedridden Gramma. George knows she's a monster, and dreads her asking for her tea. But she does, and he delivers it. She scares him and he drops the tea, the liquid seeping into the cracks of the wooden floor...

...and to the red, fiery light below a trap door. There are screams. Frightened though he is, George opens the door and pulls out a couple of old books. Like every young kid, he's curious about things of this nature. He manages  to phonetically pronounce out the words like Cthulhu and Necronomicon before slamming the book closed.

Gramma dies on his watch, but George needs to verify. Which means touching her fat, bloated arm with a hand that isn't quite right. Then he tries the mirror trick, hoping to see if she's still breathing. She is, and she grabs him.

The twist ending is when George's mother returns, George confesses Gramma's dead. The mom mentions he should comfort himself with the knowledge Gramma will always be with them...and then George opens his eyes.

They are the eyes of Gramma.

The Problem of Memory

Now that I just wrote that, I realize it makes for a pretty good introduction to the ideas presented by H. P. Lovecraft who created the Cthulhu mythos. My guess is that this 1985 episode might have been the first time I'd ever been exposed to that kind of horror. At that point, I was still two years away from my first Stephen King novel, Pet Semetary.

In 2019, having read Lovecraft's work and seen Cthulhu stories and inspired stories for thirty-four years, the impact isn't as great. To be honest, my favorite King-written Cthulhu-type story is "Crouch End," a short story from his collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, as narrated by Tim Curry. Talk about narrator perfect for a story.

But back to Gramma, it is a decent episode, I suppose. And, considering it's only one of two I can remember from the 1985 version of the Twilight Zone, I should continue to think highly of it. I will, but I won't have to see it again.

I guess that's problem with memory: sometimes, something is better in your memory rather than visiting it again. Like going back to your growing up house or the town of your youth. Everything just seems a little smaller.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Twilight Zone (2019) - The Comedian

Surprisingly, when Star Trek: Discovery was announce as the major first show used to draw in viewers to CBS All Access, I was largely indifferent. But when I heard about Jordan Peele was going to executive produce and host a revamped version of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, I was there.

A Difficult Show to Follow

For a myriad of reasons, all subsequent efforts to reboot the original Twilight Zone proved unsuccessful. Other than the on-set accidental deaths of Vic Morrow and his fellow actors, I can barely remember the movie. The 1980s TV  version  was better, but I can only recall two episodes. And the one early in the 2000s? I had to be reminded it existed via a CBS Sunday Morning piece.

But the Peele version looked to be something different. One view of the trailer, debuting after the Super Bowl, told me the franchise was in good hands with a healthy dose of homage being paid to the original while eyes focused on the here and now.

So it was with eagerness I watched the first episode, "The Comedian," free on YouTube.

The Moody Color Palette

 Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the original series--aside from the writing--was the black-and-white  film. It added the somber ambiance to the stories being told, with the high contrast between light and dark. The other series didn't quite match the mood.

At least with this first episode, the producers have figured out how to make a moody color program. The story follows comedian Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) as he constantly bombs on stage. His act is overtly political, and, as he tries to explain to his live-in girlfriend (Amara Karan), he's trying to make people think. They don't want to think. They want to laugh. His fellow stand-up comedians pretty much say the same thing.

With the setting of a late-night comedy club, this episode is lit by dim lights, placed in such a way as to show only certain parts of the scenes. Wassan's apartment looks like an upscale address, yet there are what appear to be headlights passing the windows. Not kidding when I say it came across very Blade Runner-like. So the palette was quite good.

The Set-Up

I'm not sure how many Twilight Zone episodes turn on a bargain being made, but this one is firmly in that tradition. While Wassan wallows at the bar, he sees J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan). He is amazed because Wheeler, at the height of his popularity, simply seemed to vanish. I'm not a huge Tracy Morgan fan, but he nails it here. He's dramatic and enigmatic, restrained in a way you know he's hiding something. He gives Wassan pointers, specifically to draw from his personal life to make the crowd laugh. They clink their glasses, and we viewers know something has happened.

When Wassan next bombs on stage with his political bit, he shifts to talking about his dog. The crowd eats it up. Wassan keeps going. He nailed it. Everyone recognizes he had a good night. He returns home to share the good news with his girlfriend, yet she has no memory of the dog.

It was as if he never existed.

Wassan doesn't figure it out until the same thing happens again, this time with a member of his family. Then he puts two and two together and realizes he has the power to make people nonexistent. It's not murder if they never existed, right?

The Twist

There's always a twist in every Twilight Zone episode, but I'm not going to reveal it here. You'll need to watch it. But I think you can imagine how the rest of the episode plays out. The ending was quite satisfying, echoing more than one Twilight Zone episode and one very famous movie ending.

The Benefit of CBS All Access

Famously, Rod Serling fought with the censors at CBS back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Very quickly in this new episode, with writer Alex Rubens has the characters drop the f-bomb, you know you're in a different realm. One can only imagine what Serling would have produced in an environment like this.

At least with one episode, The Twilight Zone (2019) is a worthy successor to the original series. I enjoyed this episode so much that I'll be subscribing to CBS All Access. And as a bonus? I'll get Star Trek as well.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Reaction to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer

So. Much. Glee!

That's the way I described my feelings Friday afternoon as I watched the trailer for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker on my iPhone. With Star Wars Celebration occurring this week, I was expecting the trailer, although I had been so inundated with work at the day job that I forgot about it. Imagine my joy when I resurfaced and saw everyone I knew reacting to the new trailer.

Instantly, I grabbed my earbuds and phone and tuned in.

Luke's voice over. Confirmation--if anyone needed any--that Luke Skywalker would play a role in the new film. A desert planet. Of course there's a desert planet. Tatoonie? The camera purposefully moving to see the lightsaber attached to Rey's belt. Boy, does that look familiar. Is that Luke's saber?

And the music! My gosh, whomever decided to use the Force theme back in 2015 (for The Force Awakens) and continuing onto 2017's The Last Jedi and now into 2019 needs a special award. Yeah, the main theme is awesome, but the Force theme tugs at the heart. Beautiful.

Then the cascade of images. Lando! Kylo Red soldering his shattered "Vader-like" mask. Him running through some battle, bright red saber slicing a dude's guts. The Falcon. A large chunk of something (that I recognized only when I got home and watched the trailer on my big TV) that certainly looks like the Death Star's death ray. Oh, and a few scattered shots of the new guys

And then Luke's voice commenting that no one's ever really gone. Followed by Emperor Palpatine's cackling laughter.

And the title reveal. Plus the color scheme.

Goosebumps for sure. Maybe even a little welling of tears, especially upon seeing Carrie Fisher's Leia. Heartstrings were definitely tugged.

Then my brain got involved.

First of all, don't get me wrong. I'm going to see The Rise of Skywalker on Day One. I'm going to get more and more goosebumps every time a favorite character--new and old--show up on screen. I can bet my reaction to seeing Lando again will be over the moon. I'm going to pump my fists and likely yell out when certain things happen.

And I'm going to cry often, especially at the end as the last shot gives way to the credits. Because if this is the final movie of the Skywalker saga, then that last image is going to be the stuff which posters are made of. You know it and I know it.

Disney also knows it.

But then I started thinking about what I saw and what Luke meant by nothing ever dies.

A slight tinge of worry crept into my excitement.

Two years ago, when I saw The Last Jedi. I absolutely loved it. Not only did the story continue, but it progressed forward. It evolved the story and the franchise. Kylo Ren himself said it: Let the past die. That doesn't mean never pay homage to what came before. No, what I took it to mean is don't be shackled by the past in such a way as to hamstring the future.

In my estimation, there have only been four original films in this franchise: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi. Every other film, no matter the quality, have all been, for lack of a better word, fan service.

Yes, we have seen brave new worlds--Endor, Naboo, Coruscant, Kamino, and Crait--with great, interesting characters--Palpatine (in Jedi), Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor), Jabba, Rose, Rey, Poe, Finn, and Holdo--but that's the point. We're supposed to see brand-new things in movies like this. We're supposed to expand the galaxy.

But all the other movies outside of the four I mentioned all are tied down to what came before. As fun as the Prequels are--they are not all bad--there were so many things thrown in for us long-time fans that it became an Easter egg hunt. Again, I loved it, but did the need to scatter Easter eggs hamper the story?

What I'm getting at in regard to the new trailer is that it's a lot of greatest hits. Maybe that's what first trailers are supposed to do. Maybe in the next one or two we'll see strange new creatures and places. That's what I'm looking for.

I sincerely hope the suits at Disney didn't bring writer/director J.J. Abrams into a meeting and basically tell him to forget everything from The Last Jedi and just make another Return of the Jedi.

Anticipation is High

I cannot wait until December when this new movie drops and all our questions will be answered.

And, lest we forget, December 2019 will also mark the conclusion of a story first started in the childhoods of many of us, way back in 1977. All things come to an end, I suppose, but I'll love Star Wars--no matter what my brain thinks--forever.

By the way, we only have 250 days until we find out all our answers.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 15

Sometimes the day job can get you down.

Day Job Writers Have Security...

I think many a writer also holds down a separate day job. Mine is actually marketing/technical writing, so I'm constantly writing. And sometimes it drains the creative mind of some of its energy.

I'm not the only one. On Thursday, over at Do Some Damage, David Nemeth commented his day job is kicking his ass and it is sapping his creativity. He asked for some tips on how to cope. I offered my own:

"Wake up early and write before the day job. Set a time in which you have time to wake, pee, get coffee, exercise at least 5 minutes (I do jumping jacks, run in place, lift dumbbells, all with a timer), and then have time to write. It's worked for me pretty well. 4:30 am is my wake up time, but I adjust it depending on how late I stay up.

Oh, here's a new thing I've started on workdays since the first Monday of February: no snooze. If you have to adjust because you stayed up late, then adjust. But don't snooze.

If you get a lunch break, take that time to write. Or read. Or basically not to the day job. Helps me every day."

That last bit is my island in the middle of the day. It's my time to turn off the concerns of the day job and return to 1940 (my Ben Wade story) or some blog I'm writing. Plus there is nothing like the thrill of driving to the day job knowing you have already written. It also helps when the day job throws you a curve ball.

...But Still Have to Deal with the Day Job

My company is in conference and trade show season. Lots to do. Lots to think about. And, despite my best attempts, I've found my lunch hours gradually shrinking this past week. Sometimes, it's a 1pm meeting I have to prep for. Other times, it's an 11am meeting that run right up to the noon hour. Either way, the lunch hours grew shorter this week. Bummer, but, like David on Thursday wrote, the work has to get done.

Make Believe is Supposed to be Fun!

In her weekly Thursday column, veteran writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch reminded writers of why many of us first took up a pencil, a pen, or a pixel. The fun and joy of make believe.

So many of us writers constantly strive to learn more about marketing, selling, and doing the little things it takes to run our small business. All important, yes, but when it comes to the act of writing, have a blast! Don't think about selling. Think only of make believe!

A great reminder this week as I found myself getting behind on producing the next story.

An Improptu Shazam-Themed Week of Blogs

Last Friday, I saw the Shazam movie. Loved it. Then I scoured my bookshelves and found a treasury sized comic and read it. I kept going, all the way back to 1941 and the Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial. Next I shot back to the 1970s and the Shazam TV show. I finally ended up in 1994 and Jerry Ordway's The Power of Shazam graphic novel.

In hindsight, I should have expected my interest in Shazam to be rekindled and read up ahead of time. I've done that in the past, but I actually enjoyed the way I did it this week. Everything Shazam-related thing I consumed I was able to compare to the new movie as well as each other.

By the way, I enjoyed Ordway's comic so much that I'm going to flip through my long boxes and see how many individual issues I bought back in the 1990s. Hopefully more than a few.

Aztec Sword Arrives Soon

In the next week, I plan on finalizing the text of the description of the third Calvin Carter adventure. I'm still proofing the text and dang if I don't enjoy this book pretty well. This one is part an old-fashioned treasure hunt/find-the-maguffin story. Here's the funny part: it's been a minute since I last read the book that I've kind of forgotten the ending. I wonder if Carter gets out of all the scrapes I put him in?

Guess I'll have to read and find out.

How was your week?

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Power of Shazam by Jerry Ordway

Movie review? Check.
Treasury comic? Check.
Movie serial? Check.
TV show? Check.
All that's left are the comics. And what better place to start than 1994's graphic novel by Jerry Ordway?

Yet Another Revision to the Origin

The original of Captain Marvel was pretty solid for a large chunk of the character's history up to the early 1950s when Fawcett Comics stopped publication. After DC Comics brought Shazam into the DC universe in 1973, the origin was unchanged. Roy Thomas revamped the origin a bit in 1987, but Jerry Ordway updated the origin again in 1994.

Here's the funny thing: In our modern world of comic book movies trying to live and breathe in the real world, Ordway manages to straddle both the expectations of contemporary 1990s comic readers without jettisoning the sense of wonder from the 1940s. That is to say, he gives some cool backstory to some of the Marvel tropes we know and love while presenting said tropes in a fresh, new way.

Billy Batson's Parents Are Alive...

The story opens with archaeologists C.C. Batson and his wife, Marilyn, are exploring a heretofore hidden Egyptian temple. With them is Theo Adam. What's fascinating is C.C. looks like the future Captain Marvel so much that I had to double back and re-read the opening pages to verify it wasn't the actual Shazam outside his costume. Nope, it was Billy's dad. Already new stuff.

As you can imagine, when the trio uncover the secret tomb of Shazam, Adam gets a tad greedy. He steals a scarab from the crypt, kills C.C., then turns around and hunts down the wife. She's gone, too. Lastly, he kidnaps Billy's sister, Mary.

...And Now He's an Orphan

Billy's living on the streets of Fawcett City, a town that seems to draw its retro-future vibe from Batman: The Animated Series. You've got art deco buildings and cars seemingly from the 40s yet there's also a car with similar markings of a Ford Mustang. Either way, the city looks great in a timeless sort of way.

Hearkening back to the character's earliest days, Billy's earning meager wages selling papers. A stranger beckons him to follow him into the subway system. This, at least, is a consistent thread through all permutations of the Billy's origins. Surprisingly, the stranger, clad in trench coat and fedora pulled low on the forehead, looks an awfully lot like the deceased C. C.

In the magical caverns, Billy meets the aged wizard Shazam. We get a little backstory, filling in the  gap between his parents deaths and Billy's present living situation. Still, despite everything, Billy says the magic word and boom!

Captain Marvel's Still a Kid Inside

Like the current movie, when young Billy becomes the adult Captain Marvel, he's still got his kid brain inside. And he's really confused. He starts wrecking Shazam's cavern, attacking the old man as the wizard tries desperately to explain everything. He finally gets through, and we move onto the next act.

Sivanna as a Businessman

To jump to a different hero's story for a moment, when John Byrne revamped Superman's story and made Lex Luthor a businessman, it made perfect sense. Perhaps Ordway saw how well that worked for Superman and did the same for Sivanna. He's still the small, scrawny type, but he's like an evil Disney, wanting to use his money to put on a World's Fair. Naturally, we learn Theo Adam is on his bankroll, and, well, things don't go well from there.

A Smart Villain in Black Adam

When Shazam finally makes his appearance, Theo Adam recognizes him as C. C. Batson. And he puts two and two together, especially when he sees the big yellow lightening bolt on the uniform's chest. He returns to his lair and, wearing the scarab amulet stolen from Egypt, actually becomes Black Adam.

This is what I'm talking about when I say Ordway brings a modern sensibility to this story. In an actual 1940s comic, the villain would just be a villain. Here, Adam, an adult, figures things out. He's not just a bad guy trying to do bad guy things.

The Big Fight Feels Familiar

If you've seen the new movie, you realize the villain, Mark Strong's Sivanna, figures out Captain Marvel is really a child inside. He wants the power. Same here. But in 1994, Jerry Ordway did it first. And it's during this fight Billy finally realizes his true potential.

A Great Re-Introduction of Shazam to the DC Universe

In The Power of Shazam, Jerry Ordway gives a modern take on the origin of the first Captain Marvel. He brings modern sensibilities to the  storytelling while laying the groundwork for future stories. His art is, as always, instantly recognizable and gorgeous. He has a way of capturing the true emotions behind the characters at certain times. It can be sadness or, like this panel, remind you Billy is nothing more than a ten-year old kid.

Plus, like the new movie, this story makes you feel like a kid again, with all the whiz-bang verve of a classic comic. As a historian, I also really dug all the nods to the original time period, including the movie serial. Captain Marvel is basically a pulp character come to glorious life in the pages of comic books. Look again at the cover. It's a pulp magazine painting. The interior title page also just rings with a 1940s vibe. It looks like it could have been the title card for the movie serial.

With Houston's Comicpalooza arriving in a month, I'll be on the lookout for issues of The Power of Shazam. My guess is I won't be the only one.

Jerry Ordway Interviewed

Not coincidentally (considering the big movie debuted), Jerry Ordway sat down with Ralph Garman on Garman's The Ralph Report this week. Garman and Ordway chatted not only about The Power of Shazam, but other milestones in comic book history in which Ordway played a role. Great peek behind the curtain with a legendary creator.

The Ralph Report is a subscription-based podcast about which I'll write a full-review in the near future. I listen every day on my commute home. It is a funny, acerbic view of entertainment news, complete with recurring bits. It's not your standard podcast. It's a show, with high production values, and constant interactions between the hosts and the listeners. The podcast is definitely adult in tone, but Ralph and Vice Host, Eddie Pence, deliver every episode with humor and heart.