writing

What is Weapon Brown?

Jason Yungbluth is a workhorse of an independent comic artist who's likely best known for Deep Fried. The DF comic is a pastiche of styles written and illustrated by Yungbluth and a compilation of a few different strips (seriously, I've seen at least sever different and distinct styles come out of this guy). A standout among them is Weapon Brown. (I have nothing good to say about the rest of Deep Fried.) Despite the hyper-violence and sexual situations, Weapon Brown is the most approachable and sensible comic of the bunch.

I get the impression that Yungbluth had the idea for a post-apocalyptic, all-grown-up Peanuts story and toyed with it in Deep Fried before blowing the whole thing out into its own series in 2007/8. Weapon Brown features solid black and white artwork as well as a strong and consistent narrative that has grown beyond the Charlie Brown mythos and spilled deeply into all the other classic Sunday comics that used to run in the newspaper. When all of today's 40-somethings were young and impressionable, this stuff was back-hoe'd into our minds. The story works best when you've got all that information in the back of your head as you read along with the mech-armed killing machine Chuck and his faithful dog Snoop. They navigate a desolate wasteland chock-a-block with mutants, gangs, black markets, and all the other cliched madness that defined the early days of apocalyptic science fiction. Throughout it all, a fresh spin is given on the entire trope by a generous layer of warped comic-strip characters. Even minor secondary characters make an appearance either as targets for murder, henchmen, or background noise.


Chuck never disappoints with his snappy dialogue and penchant for violence. It's just the way I always expected poor, set upon Charlie Brown to turn out: full of hate. Weapon brown is a fun read with great art—Yungbluth captures the essence of these classic characters in an unimaginable and recognizable way. The comic currently exists as a compilation graphic novel and, so far, six issues of a continuous story arc and is available for purchase from the Deep Fried web site. You will not be disappoint if you were ever a comic-strip nerd.

Return from AnthoCon 2012


It has been a solid week since AnthoCon 2012, I traveled down with my friends Bracken and Chris—both AnthoCon veterans. It wasn't until later that I learned that 2012 was only the second 'Con and I allowed myself to be less impressed. (Shiv goes in, shive comes out, that's how Mad Dogs* roll!) Thankfully, New Hampshire isn't too far from Boston, so sitting with my hip jammed against Chris's in the back seat sounds worse than it really was. Besides, he was wedged between Bracken's son and me—the back seat immaturity levels were high. This is the price payed for spending two days up to our eyeballs in horror writers, their writings, publishers, and all related media. In other words: well motherfucking worth it. Of all things, I was able to sell a couple of copies of my comic strip compilation Lost In Transition as well as a few copies of Dreadworks Journal, our writing group's chap'zine of horrors.

"I can't say enough about the caliber of people I was privileged to meet."

The convention itself sprawled over three days, starting on Friday. We arrived Saturday morning and I'd already been jealous because both Chris and Bracken were going to be on panels. Lo! Later that day, I was invited to appear on a panel, Writing for Video games, Role Playing Games, Comics, and other Formats.  Sweet succor! As any nerd knows, there are few pleasures that exceed waxing pretentiously about subjects we've steeped ourselves in for at least as long as we've been able to read. Maybe next time I'll get a name card and advance notice. (Regardless, thanks to T.J. for the opportunity!) And as long as I'm on "getting stuff," here's some stuff I got:

This Only Happens In The Movies/She Makes Me Smile (chapbook, signed by) by Mandy DeGeit, The Howling (I, II, III) by Gary Brandner, WTF? (Pink Narcissus Press anthology) edited by Mambert & Racicot, The Black Death of Babylon by Edward J. McFadden, The Alchemy Press Book of Pulp Heroes (anthology signed by my friend Bracken MacLeod), Chiral Mad, Anthology of Psychological Horror edited by Michael Bailey, Shock Totem #3, Shroud #11, signed print of the cover painting by Jesse Young for The Wicked, an epic yet manageable hangover.

I can't say enough about the caliber of people I was privileged to meet. I hope to stay in touch with as many of them as possible and to see them again at other conventions, events, best-seller lists, and not at all in jail for drunk and disorderly. Ooh, random highlight: Ron Añejo Pampero Aniversario. It's a rum. Drink it.

Most importantly—professionally—I can honestly say that no less than four creative opportunities sprang out of AnthoCon '12 and into my lap. Proof positive that this is the right crowd to be around. I look forward to attending AnthoCon 2013 as well as attending as many other conferences as I can manage.

*Mad Dogs, by the way, is my writing group's hyperbolic name. We're all dedicated family men and rolling terror only when well away from our wives and children. More like 'Tame Dogs.'

Things Better Left Undone

A woman with a wild Phyliss Diller hair-do slips past me as I plop my butt and my headache into a torn vinyl seat. Two minutes later, as the 7:05 a.m. train pulls away, the voices of casual conversation drift into my humming ears.

So then I went to yoga this morning instead of…

We don’t use much gas because…

There’s a circular that comes every Friday, that’s how we…

I wonder if any of them have been up since 2:40 this morning? It’s the reason I have a headache and buzzy ears. It was my first training run for a 3–5 shift delivering papers.

Carlos has been doing this kind of work for five years. He has the computer generated delivery route memorized. In fact, he does not follow the order of the list, having mentally reorganized it into a more efficient pattern. He’s a small, balding man with a heavy Spanish accent and he drives with what I can most favorably call brutal efficiency.

“See? I don’t follow that.” He points at the sheaf of papers in my lap. “Too all over. First I go to Pearl. You see it on list?”


I don’t see it because Carlos has pronounced the street name PEE-AHR-UL. This happens a lot. I barely understand the street names when he mentions them.


“Here. PEE-AHR-UL.” He points at a page I’ve flipped to. “Number 82. Then 90, then 102.”


Carlos executes a sharp turn into a driveway. The sheet has notes for each home. Things like: dlvr to front step. Side door in driveway. Pls, inside screen door-handicapped. Carlos tosses most of the papers into the driveway or onto the front walk.

“If they no complain,” he explains, “I do it this way.”

Complaints shape the route and manner of delivery. Most of the subscribers are elderly and occasionally handicapped. Carlos is skeptical of that last description.

We come to a jarring stop after speeding through an apartment parking lot. “This one. Complain a lot. Come.”

We hop out of his car and enter an apartment building. He rings the doorbell—it’s 4:15 a.m., mind you—the tenant buzzes us in.

“See here? That door. Toss paper like this.” He expertly delivers the paper to the front door, two levels up. Often, when Carlos delivers a paper, his instruction to me is “toss like this.” He only misses twice and when he does, there’s no cursing, no complaints. He hops out of the car and fixes it.

Back in the car he opines, “Now. If they handicap, why they live on third floor apartment? No elevator. Nothing but stairs.” He shrugs, shakes his head, and we speed off.

As I flip through the sheets, unable to keep up with Carlos’s system, I notice that some of the deliveries are well off the street with no apparent number or even street name. I ask about this.

“Yeah, I know! Is crazy. Especially when they complain. Eh, who knows?” He shrugs again.


He has a point. I know I wouldn’t have been able to figure out where those addresses were without frantically calling back to the fulfillment office.

“Drive, drive, drive. Wear and tear, gas, early up. Don’t pay enough to follow instructions specific.”


Another good point. This route that I’m considering is worth approximately $193 per week. The Craig’s List ad I’d responded to stated $200 to $250. It also mentioned 3–5 a.m. as the shift time. 


I met with the fulfillment manager, Jim, on Saturday morning, confirmed my start day on Sunday morning, and here we are Monday morning—which still feels like Sunday night. Jim’s been working at the fulfillment center for twenty-three years. I ask him if he’s there seven days a week.

“No, I got Wednesdays and Thursdays off.” He chuckles ruefully and adds, “most times.”

It seems to me like he’s up twenty-four hours at a stretch. Has he ever gotten used to the early hours?


“Naw, not really. I don’t sleep much at all.” He hefts a giant styrofoam cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to his lips.

Jim’s very nonchalant and mostly upbeat. A very matter-of-fact guy, he lays things out as they are. Or as they should be. I like Jim.

“Now that papers have cut down on production, we don’t move as much anymore. Delivery guys don’t move as much product as they used to. We deliver a whole lot of other stuff too: circulars, phone books, advertising—you name it.”

Jim had told me the route’s value on Sunday. Now, Monday morning, he was detailing what it takes to be a delivery contractor. It turns out there are fees involved.

“You’ve gotta bag your own papers,” tells me, pointing at each item in the contract as he goes, “according to the contract, that’s $20 for bags. But I haven’t charged anyone for bags in twenty years.” He smiles. See? I like Jim. He goes on, “According to the law, we gotta provide a workspace for you, but since you’re not an employee, we gotta charge you for it.”

It’s $2 per week for a stall in the warehouse. A $.10 fee for processing a tip that comes through the payment processing system, invoices $.05, and a $1.00 for each bulk delivery. That might not seem like much until you start to subtract it from the already tiny paycheck based on a per paper delivery rate of $.1497 for six days a week. $.2667 on Sundays.

Jim takes me to what would be my stall in the warehouse. It’s an unfinished corral made of wood—composite flooring boards. It’s here that the delivery driver will individually bag the papers on their route. On rainy days, most will need to be double-bagged.

Carlos whips the car into a sickening u-turn and tosses a paper. “192, Herald. Toss like this.” The paper skids down the driveway. We swerve into the opposite lane and Carlos stops abruptly, slaps the hazards on, and hops out. He runs across a short lawn past a sign that reads: Keep Off The Grass. I glance at the delivery sheet, we’re at 195 and the instructions read ‘inside door, stay off grass.’” Carlos tosses the paper onto the porch, scuttles back to the car and we’re off.

As he maneuvers the car from stop to stop, he still hasn’t complained. Never. He occasionally points out route difficulties or touchy customers, but never a complaint from him.

“You got another job?”

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I work downtown during the day as a graphic designer. Carlos just nods.

“What time you got to go?”

I tell him I catch the 6:50 a.m. train from my town’s center.

“Ah, good. Very close.” He’s thinking of me, when this route is done, how far I have to go to make it to my next job on time.

“I do more runs, deliver missed papers. Then I work pizza shop at eleven. Go home after this, get a couple hours sleep, next job.”

Delivering papers and working at a pizza shop can not possibly pay very well. I am certain the paper route doesn’t pay well as I’ve seen an advertised $200-$250 per week drop by the hour. According to the details, the pay fluctuates according to the amount of papers delivered. Customers change orders, switch papers, or cut back to three or four deliveries a week. It’s a whole other ball game on Sundays.


According to Carlos, these routes would pay out nearly $500 when he started several years ago. Now it’s worth less than half of that. It’s no secret that with the rise of the Internet, newspapers have struggled to find their place in the market. The cover cost of an individual paper has only gone up as readership has declined. Yet it appears that newspaper delivery is just as burdensome as ever. With fewer rewards and more work.

Of the one-hundred and twenty-five newspapers delivered that morning, only two of the stops were at apartment buildings. The rest went to homes and, ostensibly, to homeowners. I wondered if the recipients of the newspapers understood the effort that went into delivering a newspaper every morning?

Once a month, delivery drivers leave a self-addressed envelope for tips with the newspapers they deliver. It is, like most service industries, the best way to make up the losses associated with doing the job.

Carlos jerks to a stop, racking the parking brake. He points at a house, “This one? Good tipper. $15 once or twice.” He jumps out, up the drive to the top of the steps, and slips the newspaper between the storm and front doors.

(Note to readers: this is what it takes to get your newspaper delivered exactly as you’d like. Tip your delivery driver.)

A short while later, Carlos recounts a different tale. “This house? One time, leave note inside tip envelope.  ‘Poor service: no tip.’ Not good, not very nice.” Carlos shakes his head—still not complaining. He drops me off at my car with the beginnings of a sinus headache and the ill affects of interrupted sleep.

On the drive home, I weigh the pros and cons of taking this job. In the kitchen, I have a short conversation with my wife. The company is expecting me to be there at 3 a.m. the following morning and every morning thereafter, seven days a week. If I can’t make it, I’m responsible, as a contractor, to find a replacement.

From my day job, later that morning, I call Jim and let him know I can’t commit to the job and lay out my reasoning as well as apologizing for taking up his time. 

During a stint in the Marine Corps more than twenty years ago, I dealt with virtually being dropped out of a helicopter, being nearly drowned in full gear (more than once), near hits from friendly fire, tear gassed several times, and nearby explosions. Since then, I've been attacked in the street by a stick-up kid. Twice. And most recently I've been training in the Israeli close combat system of Krav Maga as well as Muay Thai kickboxing. But I can't do this route.

“No worries, that’s fine, thanks for letting me know.” I can hear his smile over the phone. He must get plenty of people who just never show up again. “You want me to just mail the check for today’s work?”

I let Jim know that will be just fine.

Past Friends

The final graphic novel from my library binge was My Friend Dahmer written and drawn by Derf (John) Backderf a comic artist most well-known for the indy comic The City. Backderf, in retrospect, found himself in the rather odd position of having attended high school with infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He describes Dahmer as an odd kid—which isn't exactly unexpected. What is so well done about the story is the human side of a person so often described as inhuman. There was a time before Dahmer stalked and murdered people that has generally been lost. The book, in its entirety, comes across as a notice, of sorts, to simply be more humane and compassionate for those who are obviously struggling with problems. The catalyst for Dahmer's terminal slide into depravity, Backderf notes, was likely when Dahmer's parents and high school society isolated the flawed and troubled young man who'd been resorting to alcoholism for years to control his urges. Dahmer knew what he wanted was wrong. Until this point, Dahmer is a somewhat sympathetic figure and, as the author points out, when Dahmer does act on his disturbing thoughts, he has chosen the path he will take for the rest of his life and Dahmer alone is responsible for that. This is a haunting and excellent graphic novel tracing the formative years of Jeffrey Dahmer from the perspective of a contemporary. Backderf's artistic style is reminiscent of the times he grew up in; I see hints of both Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. His attention to detail with regard to the eras being depicted as well as the story's action are wonderful. What's so great about this, when it comes to comic-style storytelling, is that the reader is able to clearly follow the story rather than dwell in the flaws of depiction. Backderf's art generally deserves a second look to absorb the details that may have been missed on the first pass.

Murder in the Emerald City

Continuing my public library graphic novel binge, we have Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case. Jensen is the son of Tom Jensen, one of the primary detectives assigned to the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway) case. The senior Jensen's dogged perseverance and sense of duty keep him on the case longer than most others as the police track the serial killer. The novel is essentially an homage from son to father and wonderfully written. It manages to keenly depict the humanity surrounding Ridgway's string of murders and the toll chasing a serial killer can take. Det. Jensen's humor and the delicate dynamic between himself and his wife is portrayed subtly and with great impact. It is clear that Jensen's relationship with his friends and family help him to maintain his sanity as he chases down every possible lead to find and stop Ridgway. Case provides stellar illustrations and layouts to match Jensen's keen storytelling with an economy of space and lines. A consummate illustrator, he works entirely in black and white ink on this story bringing to life each era the story crosses—roughly four decades. Case's minimal and understated style is perfect for this kind of "true" storytelling. This is highly recommended reading!

The silence.

The Silence of Our Friends is a well-written and fabulously illustrated story about two families' lives, in Houston, Texas, during the late 1960s. The action is based on one of the author's (Mark Long) experiences and takes place between two families—one black, one white—around an infamous race-riot on a local campus. The riot resulted in the death of one police officer and the arrest of five students.

But none of that is important.

What's important is that, as a piece of Civil Rights era storytelling, The Silence of Our Friends is a fabulous read. It picks through the major differences in relationships between blacks and whites in a way only a graphic novel can. Nate Powell's ink wash technique can go from warm and homespun to frenetic and harrowing in one panel.

The story itself is full of tension and all the moments that make up real life as these two families struggle to connect in an environment that is vehemently opposed to such a thing. I found myself grinding my teeth waiting for what I felt was the inevitable, horrible, and saddening event that typically drives such stories. I won't drop any spoilers, but the expected horrible events did nothing but enhance the story. Well worth the read from front to back, this fictionalized account from a lesser-known event in Civil Rights history is thoroughly enjoyable.

For me, there is some small irony that it's almost always the white kids who grow up capable of committing a story like this to comic format. It serves as another damaging remnant, in my opinion, of the 500-year struggle for equal access and standing. I am heartened, however, that more and more non-whites are successfully entering the comic storytelling format.

Love Stinks

"Love" has always troubled me. It's a word so singularly powerful in English, that it has driven the creation of millions of stories across media. The word has no true synonym. I don't care what's in the thesaurus; "adulation" or "amorousness" or "passion" just don't cut it! There's a mountain of meaning in the English language that's grokked from between the lines. Inflection, emphasis, body language, timing, and dozens of other little modifiers that I'm overlooking give love it's real meaning. I'm tired of it.

Ever since I learned the root meaning of the word "agape," I've often wondered why we don't have more encompassing words to use for certain kinds of love. The Christian subversion of agape notwithstanding, we would all be better to indulge in a love of humankind. I certainly don't have the same love for my parents that I do for my wife. Nor does she have the same love for me that she has for her sister. The list goes on; there are many forms of love who's meaning is taken entirely in context. Love needs an addendum.

Many people enjoy making up words, but few actually make it in to formal use. One of my favorites is "unpossible." Defined this way: a situation where, by no reasonable means available, the desired outcome will not happen, in any regard. It is not improbable or impossible that I'll divorce my wife and marry Salma Hayek, it is unpossible. The very laws of physics would need to be altered to make that happen--not at all a reasonable means. You get the picture.

My favorite definition of the word love is from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. According to the fictional lawyer, Jubal Hershaw, "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." I believe that definition is as intellectually and honestly close to what we typically experience. How my oldest daughter feels about my youngest daughter is described as love, but I don't believe that the younger's happiness is essential to the older.

So what kind of love is that?

Maybe I don't have enough experience to know that my birth language has several handy words for different kinds of love. I know I don't have enough experience. No matter: I'm going to figure it out and post new and old words at The Love Addendum.

Spoonfed

The following will provide the answer as to how much descriptive narrative is required for a story to be clear to your readers. I warn you: the answer is frustrating. Be warned and read on:

Just as there are many different writers in the world, there are many different readers. Many. Different. Readers. Both content creators and content consumers follow patterns and methods to do what they do. Some of them will never cross paths. For instance, a regular reader of Jonathan Franzen isn't likely to be reading Jonathan Maberry. Once you get past the mechanics of writing, one of the thorny problems that follows is how much handholding to give your readers? A huge X factor is a reader's background. If they've had a privileged life, then the inner workings of street-level crime will remain out of reach in their imagination without extensive or explicit description. Conversely, someone who's spent some time observing or living a criminal lifestyle will only need a few cues to be good-to-go for the rest of the story.

My main concerns when crafting a tale can be broken down into two aspects: clarity and entertaining (in that order). Whether or not a reader has enjoyed my work becomes a moot point if they couldn't understand it. They'll never be entertained if they think a character is running and texting and picking their nose and reading a book at the same time (and not in a super-cool, magical, speculative fiction way). There is nothing more frustrating than putting a story together, submitting it, and getting a rejection with feedback (which is good) that specifically alludes to not understanding the action (which is bad).

Again: why am I writing about this? Well, duh, I just got a rejection notice that had a smattering of "I didn't understand what happened when..." in it. When I re-read the piece, I could see where some of it deserved more description, but I couldn't see, for instance, why a reader would think two completely different objects, described in two different places would become conflated. Taking some time with the feedback, however, I began to see where a disconnect in what it takes to trigger the imagining of a particular environment or situation can cause later actions to become unclear.

Comments are never as precise as they could or should be. Nor are they ever what you want to read. In fact, they're usually so downright infuriating because those comments seem to be missing the point entirely. How could these fools not understand my work!? What us content creators need to realize is that the comments are definitely a reaction to something in the story, but not necessarily what the comments themselves say they are reacting to. Huh? What I mean is that people often don't realize what they're reacting to, they're just reacting.

And now, to answer the question: how much description needs to be spoon fed to your readers? Not much, but just enough in the right places.

Frustrating, right?

Maybe next time it'll be personal.

How much of a writer's work is personal? The answer, like humanity itself, is many shades of grey. The conventional wisdom is "write what you know." If what you know, however, has been done to death, then it may be time to gain some new experiences. On the other hand, what you know is seeded with more inspirational nuggets than one may think.

In our modern world, on Facebook, we have an average of 120 "friends." (Right iside Dunbar's Number.) Overall, in our social media universe, we have an average of 634 connections. The average man/woman sleeps with 6-7 partners. We have an average of 4.62 social interactions per day (I'm assuming that .62 were utter failures). The average couple has 2.5 children. (What is with fractions of people? Is there a story there? Never mind.) The point? There are a plethora of people in our lives who can inspire real behaviors and appearances of the characters we write. There are real people all around us threatening the President, murdering mothers and stealing their children, and ranting in court after slaughtering 77 people.

What got me thinking about this as I struggle to write stories that sell, is my contant analyzing of stories that have sold. Digging past pride and that knee jerk thought: "I can do that,"it's not difficult to see what sets successful stories apart from those that don't make it. It's not just characters, it's their interactions, the journey they make regardless of the environment they exist in. The best short stories are a snapshot just before, during, and after this arc in a characters life. The plot and setting are merely a vehicle for characters to get there from here.

I aspire.

In the meantime, read this blog's featured writing under the tab above for an essay I had submitted to Miseducation of the Writer, an anthology of essays about the black cultural boundaries in the publishing world.

Canton Writes

Another submission bites the dust. I was crushed in a local write-off this afternoon! The story I submitted to the annual contest (I'll be back, bitches!) is currently showing for a limited time under the "Featured Story" tab above. I don't typically write straight fiction, so I'm actually very proud of this piece. Enough about me; a hearty congratulations to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners in the adult category (my nemeses, if you will):

ADULT FIRST PLACE
Ultima Forsan by Justin Robinson
Graceful Penance by Suzanne Woodman

ADULT SECOND PLACE
Leaving Doolin by John J. Mitchell
Seven Seconds by Sharon Lee

ADULT THIRD PLACE
A Chance by Tara Shuman
Prisoner of War by Andrew Capraro

There were four other categories available for submission and though I'm not listing them here, congratulations to those winners as well for: Elementary, High School, Middle School, and YA categories.

If you're at all interested, a celebration and readings will be held at the Canton Public Library on April 10, 2012 at 7 P.M. With a little luck, the hard- and soft-cover books featuring all contestants' stories will be available for purchase at that time.