Happy Safe, Socially Distanced Thanksgiving!

Heya, it’s Turkey Day once again, even in the middle of a global pandemic, and I’m gettin’ a mite tired of listening to Covid-denying dumbfucks insisting that if they don’t get together with 30-50 mask-hating relatives to eat too much, argue about sports, and work grandma half to death to serve you turkey and pie, it’s an affront to America its own damn self.

Listen, I’ve had plenty of jobs that required me to work on Thanksgiving Day. I’ve been stuck in my grungy apartment because blizzards blocked the way home. I’ve made do with a frozen lasagna, a bag of M&Ms, and a diet Dr Pepper for my all-by-myself Thanksgiving dinner. And I survived it just fine. It made me appreciate my time with family all the more the next time we saw each other.

And I know only a few decades or a century back, when you left your family, you might never see them again. You might live across the country or across the ocean, without no speedy travel to the people you’d left behind. I’ve got an ancestor who left Ireland with her sister, got separated from her in New York City, and never managed to find her again. Now that’s a real tragedy, not “Trumper nihilists didn’t get to kill their grandparents for FREEDOM.”

We live in the modern world now, and we can communicate with distant family by phone, by emails, by Zoom and Skype meetings. Even when we’re apart, we can be together — and we don’t have to run the risk of infecting our loved ones with a potentially fatal disease.

Hey, kids, let’s look at some comics book covers, okay?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and save me a slice of rhubarb pie.

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Disney Must Pay

Well, here’s something utterly dreadful, something that hits on multiple levels. Not just concern for a writer who’s dedicated decades of his life to science fiction and fantasy, both original and adapted — but concern for the future of every other creator, writer, artist, and musician. And concern for the future of the entire concept of copyright.

Check the link above for the full details, but the general summary is this: Alan Dean Foster, who has been writing great fiction for as far back as I can remember and who has written lots of tie-in fiction for “Star Wars,” “Alien,” and more, hasn’t been receiving the royalties he was owed by Disney, which has mostly ignored his requests to get paid. They offered to negotiate once, but told him he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement first, which just isn’t done during contract negotiations. He asked the Science Fiction Writers of America for help, and Disney stiff-armed them, too.

Disney’s argument is apparently that when they acquired LucasFilm and Fox, they purchased the right to publish an artist’s work, but they did not purchase the obligation to pay artists for their work. In other words, they say they can publish a book, but they don’t have to pay the author.

This is, obviously, lunacy. No contracts are set up that way, except contracts written by crooks. Reputable publishers pay authors for the right to publish.

It doesn’t make much sense, on the surface. Disney has a near-monopoly on the entertainment industry. They’re worth, at the minimum, hundreds of billions of dollars. The amount of money they owe Foster — who has been diagnosed with cancer and whose wife has serious medical issues — would be a drop in the bucket for a multinational corporation like Disney.

So what’s the motive? Partly because they can, and no one can stop them. If Foster fights them in court, Disney’s lawyers can wait him out ’til he’s bankrupt or dead. If the SFWA helps out, they can drain the organization dry with not much more effort.

But it’s also an attempt to rewrite the rules of copyright. If Disney can prevail, any publishing or entertainment company can break a contract to give themselves no obligation to pay their employees by simply having the rights purchased by a sister corporation. If they can get the courts to bow for this, it means that copyrights will be a tool only for the largest and most powerful corporations. Anyone who publishes a book or an artwork or a piece of music or film could find their rights stripped away with ease.

How can this be stopped? I really don’t know. The SFWA is recommending using the hashtag #DisneyMustPay — but that may be hoping Disney will pay any attention to a social media campaign. The legal system may be of no help at all — besides Disney’s ability to wait out other legal teams ’til they’re out of money, the courts and legislatures have a tendency to roll over for anything the Mouse wants.

We can hope justice will prevail. But in the real world, outside of fiction, comics, and film, justice rarely makes an appearance.

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Puppy Love

So I was expecting November to be busy, but not quite this busy.

We’re fostering a dog ’til sometime around the Thanksgiving holiday. It was largely unexpected — the paper has been running Pet of the Week features for a while, and I expected my primary contribution to the project was taking photos of dogs at the shelter and then writing short blurbs about them. But I’m realistic — I know not every dog can be rescued.

But my sister made some calls to friends and relatives about one specific dog, and when a cousin from the Big Bend area decided he’d like the dog, we ended up agreeing to foster him until we could get him transport down south.

Anyway, this is Baxter.

He’s about three months old, and he’s a handful. We’ve kept my sister’s and brother’s dogs occasionally when they went on vacation, but this is our first time having to raise up a dog from a very young age. We’re trying to get him to learn his name, and how to recognize important words. We’ve taught him to accept being on a leash. We should probably be trying to teach him some commands.

We won’t have a lot of time to teach him anything — he’ll be taking the first leg of his trip to his forever home during the Thanksgiving break (unless we get snowed in, or unless we all get the ‘rona, which is a serious danger right now).

We’ve only had him for a few days, and he’s already very good at annoying me by chewing on my fingers and my shoes and my pants legs. And he’s already got me loving him for his enthusiasm and intelligence and loving, playful nature.

So basically, remember when I said I probably wouldn’t post a lot this month? It goes double or even triple now, ’cause I got this big baby to love on and/or suffer through…

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Building Character

Y’all, after the marathon review-fest before Halloween, I’m almost entirely out of stuff to review, so I’m going to start posting a bit more lightly for a while. November and December are some of the busiest months for me anyway, so I’d benefit personally from a bit less time blogging.

But I don’t want to go radio silent either, so here’s a bit of frivolity I ended up cooking up last week on Election Day.

Let’s go through some huge amount of backstory first. Back in the Ancient Days, right after I got out of college, I had a job in Levelland, Texas. It wasn’t a great job, I didn’t know anyone in town, I didn’t have cable TV, and personal computers weren’t a Thing yet. So to fill time after work, I’d sit down with a legal pad and make superhero and supervillain characters using the GURPS RPG system for as long as I could. I knew they weren’t going to get played, ’cause I didn’t know anyone who played GURPS, but I loved their character design system, and I liked getting to make up new characters.

Now flash-forward to Election Day. I didn’t want to pay attention to election news on TV or online — I already knew how badly the stress wrecked me in 2016. So I decided I’d see if I could still fill some legal pads up with GURPS characters. I figured the process of making characters in the early ’90s was more than absorbing enough to keep me entertained and distracted.

Well, I wasn’t entirely right. Part of my problem was that I hadn’t made any GURPS characters in about 15-20 years, and I was really out of practice. Plus I had trouble with the math. And really, when you get down to it, I wanted to go get online and see how things were going. So I only made one full character, plus a partial second one before my inspiration ran out.

Before we get to this guy’s stats, let’s do a quick summary of GURPS for those of you unfamiliar with the system. It’s a point-based character system — stats over 10, advantages, and skills cost you points; stats under 10 and disadvantages get you some points back. Quirks are worth a negative point each (and limited to five) and must be roleplayed. Numbers in the square brackets are how many character points were allocated to each item. This is all done in GURPS 3rd Edition, ’cause 4th Edition was garbage.

In GURPS, 100 points is considered a good starting point for beginner-level, unpowered characters, being significantly above the average person, but not strong enough to power through every obstacle. Some campaigns, particularly those dealing with high-level fantasy or superhero games, can be much stronger, up to 500 points, 1,000 points, or even more.

This is Jimmy Watchill, an aspiring gunfighter in the Wild West.

Name: James “Jimmy” Watchill
Total Points: 100
Appearance: White male, 20 years old, 5’7″, 140 pounds. Sandy brown hair, brown eyes. Wears old, dusty, but generally well-kept clothing, including a battered hat.

Statistics:
ST: 9 [-10]
DX: 14 [45]
IQ: 10 [0]
HT: 12 [20]
Speed: 6.5
Move: 6
Dodge: 6

Advantages:
Alertness +2 [10]
Charisma +1 [5]
Danger Sense [15]

Disadvantages:
Lecherousness [-15]
Overconfidence [-10]
Poverty: Struggling [-10]

Quirks: Hates cold weather; Wishes he were a superstar gambler; Early riser; Brags about his cooking; Enjoys singing with others. [-5]

Skills: Animal Handling – 9 [2], Bard – 10 [2], Brawling – 16 [4], Cooking – 12 [4], Detect Lies – 9 [2], Fast-Draw – 16 [4], Fast-Talk – 10 [2], First Aid – 11 [2], Fishing – 11 [2], Gambling – 10 [2], Guns – 16 [4], Jumping – 15 [2], Lasso – 14 [2], Pickpocket – 14 [4], Riding (Horse) – 15 [4], Singing – 12 [2], Stealth – 14 [2], Streetwise – 10 [2], Swimming – 15 [2], Tracking – 11 [4]

Languages: English (Native) – 10 [0], Spanish – 9 [1].

Biography: Jimmy grew up a Kansas farm kid with fast fingers, a lot of skill with guns, and not a lot of patience with farming. The family hit a rough patch when his mother died of fever and his father was killed by bandits — bandits who Jimmy managed to kill just a few minutes too late. His older brother inherited the family farm, and Jimmy realized he didn’t want to grow old in his brother’s shadow — and he wanted to escape his feelings of guilt over failing his father. He hit the road, hoping to turn his skills with a gun into enough money to let him buy his own property in the distant Northwest.

Design Notes: Jimmy probably has more points in Skills than he ought to, considering his young age. But I kept screwing up my math while I was building him, and the easiest way to fix him was always to add another couple points into Skills.

Also, for the record, I’m kinda proud of giving him the Overconfidence disadvantage. It means he’ll rarely hesitate before stepping up to any challenge. That’ll probably turn out well for him when he’s shooting down a bad guy, picking a pocket, or twirling a lasso. But it’s gonna get him in a lot of trouble — fun, adventure-filled trouble — when it comes to his low-ranked skills in Detect Lies, Gambling, Streetwise, and Animal Handling.

Why a Wild West character instead of a superhero? Partly because I didn’t want to dig out the GURPS Supers book, partly because Western characters are nicely archetypal, so it’s fun and easy, and partly because the gunslinger was what popped into my head when I sat down with the legal pad.

So there’s my boy Jimmy. I’ve got a few more in reserve from back in the days when I had a personal webpage, and I’d really kinda like to make a few more new characters, too, though I feel like I need a nice long weekend to work on ’em. Eventually, I may post more of ’em, if I feel like it.

I’ll try to be back with some more posts soon-ish, so y’all stay safe and sane ’til then.

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A Nation of Monsters

Is the election over? I can barely keep track anymore.

Whatever the result — even if the good guys win — it’s still bad news. Because the bad guys — the people who looked at four years of open corruption, hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and Nazi bullshit — still did a hell of a lot better than they should’ve.

So 2016 showed that far too many Americans were comfortable with the Klan, the Nazis, and white nationalist violence. But 2020 showed that they’re not just comfortable with it — they’re eager for more.

On the bright side, of course, is the fact that American voters have strongly rejected Trump twice — Hillary Clinton got 2.8 million more votes than Trump, and Biden is on track to get even more than that. But because the Electoral College is an outdated joke implemented solely to appease white slaveowners in the 1880s, America gets to be the only democracy that periodically tells its voting majority to fuck off.

Of course, Tyrannus Tiny-Thumbs may still figure out a scheme to steal the election, but we’re rapidly approaching the point where only the maddest of the mad will accept that. When even the quivering cowards in the national media are willing to call him a liar, and the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court are fine with telling him to get lost, you’re no longer fighting from a position of strength.

If this were a comic book world, it’d likely be more depressing. In the comics, the supervillains are generally feared by almost everyone. In the real world, however, if the Red Skull or the Hatemonger or the Joker or Lex Luthor tried to take over the world, we know that a lot of people who used to be all about small government, low taxes, and family values, would now follow the villains, ’cause they OWN TEH LIBS or because they want to put non-white people in camps or because you gotta run the government like a murderous, destructive megacorp, or because they just want to cheer as a lunatic murders innocent people.

If Mephisto, the Devil his own damn self, offered up an Antichrist who demanded people brand themselves with his mark to show their loyalty to him, it’d be a heavy-handed summer crossover event that ended with most people refusing to embrace evil. But in the real world — well, we already know how many people agreed to wear the mark in 2016 and 2020. They had hats to show it off, didn’t they?

We’ll be back to doing proper comic book content soon enough, but for now, let’s remember an eternal truth that remains no matter who runs the White House, something agreed upon by Captain America, Indiana Jones, Jack Kirby, and every other good American:

The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi.

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Fight for Democracy

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, and if you haven’t been paying close attention, this might be our last chance ever to vote.

The Mango Mussolini in the White House plans to cheat his way to victory, and he’s got the Supreme Court, the Senate, more than a few state legislatures, a few million crooked cops, and a bunch of Nazi-affiliated dumbfucks on his side.

And I’m a bit pissed about that.

I bet a lot of y’all have already voted — through mail or early voting — and your country thanks you. Democracy is worth fighting for, and we’re lucky that we get to join that fight with something as simple as voting — and voting against a fascist, at that.

But if you haven’t voted yet, I feel like it’s important to express just how desperately important that civic duty is, and as a comics blogger, I know the best way to get an important point across is through cartoonish, brutal, furious violence. And so:

Again: Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. And vote Blue all the way down the ballot.

Never forget, friends: The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi.

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The Pumpkin King with His Skeleton Grin

My children, tomorrow is the best day of the year, and I still have time to review another horror tale. Let’s look at one of the best Halloween stories out there, Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge.

Well, here we are — it’s Halloween night, 1963, in the little podunk Midwestern town you call home, and it’s time for the biggest event of the year. But it’s not trick-or-treating. It’s not the Halloween parade. It’s the time when the October Boy, Sawtooth Jack himself, that pumpkin-headed, candy-stuffed, butcher knife-wielding scarecrow, hauls himself out of the cornfield and makes his way toward town. And if he makes it to the church before midnight, there’s going to be big trouble.

Luckily, every teenaged boy in town is in the way, armed with clubs and machetes and kitchen knives and pump handles and more. Why just the kids? Because the only way anyone gets to leave this little podunk Midwestern town you call home is to kill the October Boy before midnight. Seriously. The lucky kid gets permission to go live his life outside of this little hellhole, and the rest of you are stuck here forever. So get after it, kid. You don’t wanna be on the wrong end of the knife when you’re staring down Sawtooth Jack’s crooked grin.

Much of our story focuses on 16-year-old Pete McCormick, on his first year going after the October Boy. He’s a smart kid, smarter than most — he knows he can’t rely on brute strength and bravado to take down a nightmare with a pumpkin’s face — but like almost every other kid in town, he’s stuffed full of resentment and anger. He’s been stuck in this town his whole life, watching his drunkard father get beat down and knowing that’s the best he has to look forward to — unless he can make his escape.

But the October Boy isn’t the only obstacle Pete has to contend with. There’s every other teenaged boy in town, many of them stronger and more violent than he is. There’s Jerry Ricks, the brutal, thuggish cop who’s run the town as long as anyone can remember. And there’s Kelly Haines, the only girl participating in the competition, the person who knows all the secret scandals Pete hasn’t learned about yet.

Will Pete get his free trip out of town? Or will the October Boy drag the town to Hell with him?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a thoroughly fun book, though I hesitate to classify it as straight horror. Yeah, it’s got a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, multiple murders, a conspiracy stretching back generations, and evil both supernatural and mundane, but it feels more like a hardboiled crime novel than anything else.

A lot of Norman Patridge’s writing is in detective fiction, and his writing style in this book is picture-perfect crime noir. Almost everyone in the book is at least a little bit sleazy — the first thing the hero does on Halloween night is break into a cop’s house to steal his gun, after all. And the book is stuffed to the gills with performative machismo. I don’t even consider that a bad thing! Desperate, violent men doing desperate, violent things to other desperate, violent men is one of the best ways to write hardboiled crime fiction. And yes, Kelly Haines, essentially the only female character in the book, does manage to clock her share of dudes upside the head with a brakeman’s club, but as much fun as she is, as much as she moves the story along, she won’t be mistaken for the main character.

And the main character, by the way? It’s actually a pumpkin. Because we do spend about half the story’s length inside the October Boy’s blazing brain as he’s constructed in a cornfield, his wooden chest cavity stuffed full of candy, as he plots his way through the night, as he remembers his past, as he decides what kind of creature he’s going to be. It’s his desire for revenge that drives the story forward, it’s his decisions and planning that change the town’s fate, and it’s his ability to show mercy that brings the tale to its proper conclusion.

“Dark Harvest” was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and an International Horror Guild Award in 2007, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction in 2006. Publishers Weekly picked it as one of their 100 Best Books of 2006. So it’s not just my opinion, y’all — it’s a great Halloween story, and you should go look for it, read it, and remember what it’s like to run the streets of your hometown with a baseball bat, looking for your showdown with the October Boy.

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The Creeping Terror

We’ve talked fairly recently about the need for horror and cosmic horror to move past H.P. Lovecraft and his racism, and it turns out there’s a roleplaying game that decided to figure out how to work that out. Can you have meaningful cosmic horror that doesn’t rely on Lovecraft and his creations to work? Let’s take a look at Lovecraftesque, designed by Joshua Fox and Becky Annison.

First of all, this isn’t your standard RPG, with players throwing dice to defeat monsters and steal all the gold in the dungeon. There are no dice and no GM. It’s a storytelling game, less reliant on the random roll of the dice and more focused on collaboratively building a cohesive, satisfying story.

And this game has some significant differences from its most obvious inspiration, the classic horror RPG “Call of Cthulhu.” Players are encouraged not to use familiar foes from the Cthulhu Mythos — no deep ones, no mi-go, no King in Yellow, no Nyarlathotep, not even Cthulhu itself. The name of the game, after all, is “Lovecraftesque,” not “Slavishly Recreating Lovecraft’s Works.” This allows the players to be surprised by the terrors they conjure up themselves, rather than confronting the same monsters every player has grown accustomed to over the years.

The other difference from “Call of Cthulhu” is more controversial among certain sets of performatively assholish players. “Lovecraftesque” advises players on ways to avoid the issues that made Lovecraft’s fiction so problematic. It’s a game that says no to racism, sexism, and homophobia, and even counsels players on how to avoid harmful and untrue stereotypes about mental illness. The game even offers a tool called the X-Card, which allows a player to veto a just-introduced story element they find unpleasantly upsetting or overwhelming.

So how’s the game work?

Every player cycles between three different roles: the Witness (who plays the main character), the Narrator (who describes the action and reveals clues), and the Watchers (any other players — they support the Narrator by helping to add details to descriptions and by playing some NPCs). These roles rotate from one scene to the next.

These scenes themselves have a specific structure of their own, with the game divided into three parts. Part One is five scenes long, and Part Two can be up to three scenes long. Each scene ends with the revelation of a new clue into the strange horror menacing the Witness. Part Three starts with a “Journey into Darkness” in which the Witness is taken, willingly or not, to the location of the final confrontation. After that, the “Final Horror” scene unveils the, um, final horror, and then an Epilogue reveals what happens afterwards. The Witness does not have to die, and may even survive entirely unharmed.

There are a number of special cards that allow the game’s rules to be broken in various ways, sometimes by letting a player take over as the Narrator or Witness, sometimes by introducing new story elements or clues, sometimes by forcing an ongoing effect that must be used through the rest of the story.

Another fun rule requires the players to “Leap to Conclusions” after every scene. Each player has to look at the available clues and plot points and put together their best guess as to what the Final Horror may actually be. These guesses will mostly be completely inaccurate, but they can give players some ideas about where they’d like to steer the story, and they’re fun to review once the game is over.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I know this all sounds fairly daunting, but plenty of advice is offered on how to set up and conclude scenes, how to create and develop the Witness, and how to bring the game to a satisfying conclusion. A full teaching guide is also included, which allows the rules to be quickly communicated to an entire gaming group.

Plus there are also over a dozen scenarios offered for players to use, complete with details about the Witness, some useful NPCs, settings, special cards to use, and sample clues for players who need some more ideas. The scenarios are from a wide variety of times and places, from the familiar 1930s New England to modern-day America, World War II London, the Deep South in the 1960s, a Russian ship trapped in polar ice in 1902, a spaceship in the distant future, pre-colonization West Africa, fraternity row at a university in the Midwest, a deep sea exploration base, and many more.

(Personal favorite scenarios: a house-sitter discovering bizarre hints of the eldritch in the memorabilia inside a ritzy Hollywood mansion; a cyberpunk scientist battling a computer virus that’s somehow adapted to infect humans; and a blind occultist researching a recently-discovered Braille edition of the Necronomicon.)

A couple essays are also devoted to advice for players on how to avoid problematic areas common to Lovecraft’s fiction. The advice on racism is likely the most vital — because Lovecraft was really racist, y’all — while also acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding racist tropes in many settings. If the Witness is a black man living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, racism is everywhere. But if you come to a game to escape from the racism of the real world, in-game racism can make the game deeply un-fun. Still, the advice is sound, straightforward, and useful — find out what the other players’ comfort levels are with depictions of racism, avoid the common racist plotlines (like humans mating with subhumans — Innsmouth stories are popular, but they were based around Lovecraft’s fear of race-mixing), don’t make a whole race of people into diabolical cultists, and when it comes to creating villains, punch up, not down.

As for mental illness, one’s initial thought may be, “Is there anything left of Lovecraft and cosmic horror if you take out getting driven mad by the shocking revelations?” But as the authors point out, lots of people have mental illnesses, of different types and varying degrees, and very few of them are down with the idea that having an illness makes them prone to carving up sacrifices, joining cults, and summoning monster-gods from beyond strange aeons. Besides a lot of Lovecraft’s “madmen” were either entirely lucid and not actually insane, were only affected for a short period of time, or were likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

So the authors’ advice is to be aware of what your players will be uncomfortable with, and to be mindful of how you’re depicting mental illness. They also suggest describing symptoms of a breakdown — it’s possible that everyone who encounters the quad-dimensional hellbeasts from the Bile Realms suffers mental trauma, but they can all have unique symptoms, tailored to their existing personality. A soldier could become hyper-vigilant or obsessed with cleaning her weapons; a professor could try to track down all information about the horrors or retreat from learning completely; or any of a very wide array of symptoms could develop. Just because Lovecraft or “Call of Cthulhu” say madness happens one way doesn’t mean players can’t look for another way to roleplay horror.

If there’s any part of the game that’s less than useful, it’s probably the section on Lovecraftian poetry. Why is there a chapter on Lovecraftian poetry in a roleplaying game? I do not know. The poems don’t seem bad, and the whole chapter is fairly short — but it’s also very skippable.

But on the whole, if you’re looking for a new kind of horror roleplaying and storytelling experience, one that emphasizes creeping terror and allows players to avoid the moral weaknesses of Lovecraft’s tales, this is a game you may want to try out.

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Werewolves on Wheels

It’s Halloween Week! It’s been a super-weird and largely awful year, but we get this whole week for celebrating the best holiday of the year — culminating in Halloween itself, on a Saturday, with a full moon! And speaking of full moons, let’s review Mongrels, a novel written by Stephen Graham Jones.

So kids, what do we know about lycanthropy? Well, it’s the power to shift your form, right? The power to become a powerful, unstoppable werewolf, master of the night, destroyer of man and animal alike, savage scourge of the forest, a beast unlike all other beasts!

Actually, according to this book, it kinda sucks. There’s so much stuff that can kill you. You can’t wear tights or panty hose, ’cause if you wolf out while wearing them, they’re sheer enough that they change with you, and when you return to human form, every hair pulled back into your skin drags artificial fibers into your body, into your bloodstream, and you spend all day dying.

You have to be careful driving, ’cause if you wolf out in the car, you can’t drive anymore, and you’re gonna die. You sure can’t go on a boat. You wolf out in the middle of the ocean, you’re gonna go overboard and drown. You can’t even eat delicious trash out of the dumpster, ’cause if the wolf eats a tin can, the human’s gonna suffer for it. And you’re not going to live very long, even if you survive all the hazards. Being a werewolf takes a toll on your body. But no matter how long you live, it’s mostly going to suck.

“Mongrels” follows a kid, an unnamed narrator, as he travels across the South with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby. They’re all werewolves, but the kid hasn’t had his first change yet. Sometimes he wants it desperately, sometimes he’s not so sure. A lot of the time, he’s not sure that time will ever come at all. Darren is a laughing good-old-boy daredevil, and Libby is more careful, but often more savage.

They’re generally flat-broke and on the run from someone — usually because Darren or Libby turned into a monster and ate someone they shouldn’t have, usually a cop. It’s not an easy life, living out of junked-out trailers, traveling in cars that don’t run well, struggling to earn enough money to buy decent food. The kid never finishes out a whole year of school, generally only a few months at a time.

The whole family is fairly invisible, working bad jobs, burning trash out back of the trailer, buying food and wine coolers at convenience stores and truck stops. (I have a weakness for this book because the family spends time in two different towns I’ve lived in, and it’s nice to imagine you could’ve been that close to werewolves while you were buying corn dogs and chimichangas at Allsup’s in college.)

So the kid learns why you don’t go trying to turn normal humans into werewolves, he follows his uncle and his aunt on bloody sprees all over the countryside, he meets other werewolves — very rarely friendly — and once in a while, he gets to make a friend. The whole family goes through uncomfortable scrapes with the law, with angry rednecks, with kidnappers who want werewolves for their pee, with an out-of-control bear. But of all the things that can destroy a werewolf pack, the biggest threat is time. Time moves on, and people, even werewolves, change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a real hair-raiser of a novel. Sometimes, it’s intensely scary, action-soaked, and bloody. Sometimes, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And a lot of the time, it’s really sad. Because the life of a werewolf is hard and painful and lonely. You don’t get money, you don’t get possessions, you don’t get friends, you don’t get to settle down, and the future is always a question mark.

Characterization is a real high point for this book. You get to know every nook and cranny of these people’s heads — Libby’s stubborn nature, and her barely secret desire to go back to her lowdown scumbag mate Red; Darren’s good nature and quick wits, so often disarmed by the beast within; the kid’s questioning mind, his yearning to belong, his boundless love and trust in his aunt and uncle, his hopes and fears for his future.

We get few physical descriptions of the trio — Jones says he always considered them, like him, Native American. But we know what they look like where it counts. They look like humans. And they look like wolves.

If you love werewolves, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you ever lived the low-luck, low-rent, poor trash lifestyle, this book has something to say to you.

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Hulk as Horror

I know this title is still ongoing, at least for a few more months, and I’ve never had an opportunity to review the individual issues — but again, I live four hours away from the nearest decent comics shop, so I’ve had to make do with trades for a while. Nevertheless, let’s review this as a whole production. It’s time to look at The Immortal Hulk, written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Joe Bennett, with cover art by Alex Ross.

When the Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962, the character was as far as possible from the stereotypical lantern-jawed titan of justice. Stan Lee was inspired by a number of characters when creating him, including Frankenstein’s Monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And the early Hulk showed those influences very strongly. The Hulk was a misshapen brute who could only take his powered form at night. The earliest Hulk was not a “HULK SMASH PUNY HUMANS” dimwit, but he didn’t have the refined intellect of Bruce Banner. He was cunning. He was, frankly, a raging asshole. And he could occasionally shapeshift in strange and unplanned ways.

Of course, time marched on, and it wasn’t long before we had the familiar Hulk we all know — not smart, incredibly angry, often heroic, but not always. But he’s a star. He’s been on TV, he’s been in cartoons, he’s been in movies. He’s safe, snuggly, loveable, at least to his mass media fans.

At some point in the comics, he’d gotten killed — the archer Hawkeye managed to kill Bruce Banner when he was temporarily cured of being the Hulk — but comics being comics, this didn’t last long, and the nature of Hulk’s resurrections had some wondering if he was actually immortal.

So when Al Ewing and Joe Bennett took the series over, they decided to take the Hulk back to his origins. They restored his cunning, merciless personality. They restored part of his original look.

And here’s how Issue #1 went. Bruce Banner is traveling again, staying undercover, and staying out of trouble. He stops in a convenience store at the same time as a kid with a gun decides to rob the place. He flies into a panic and starts spraying lead. The clerk catches a bullet. A bystander catches a bullet. Banner catches a bullet. All of them die.

Until nightfall. The night is when the Hulk rises from the dead. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And he’s angry. Coldly, terribly angry.

He finds the gang who ordered the kid to make the robbery. He takes them out. And the last one, the shooter, insists he only made a mistake, he’s not a bad guy.

And the Hulk smiles.

“The Immortal Hulk” isn’t a superhero comic. It’s a horror comic.

Who is this Hulk? Aside from his devious intelligence and icy rage, he’s much more controlled than most of his personas. He can converse civilly with anyone he wants, and he knows how to make intricate plans to get what he wants. And he still wants justice for the world — however, his plan to get justice involves, well, destroying the world. And Bruce Banner is, for once, in agreement with him.

The Hulk looks very much like the classic Hulk. No non-green colors, no mobster suits, nothing out of the ordinary, at least as far as gigantic green lumps of muscle and malice go. He’s got the giant Neandertal-esque browline, he’s got the snub nose, he’s got the oversized upper lip, the flat teeth, the beady eyes — but the eyes are greener than normal, and there’s plenty of white around the iris. They are eyes that say someone very smart, not very sane, and very, very scary is living inside that skull, and anyone who finds themselves eye-to-eye with that face is likely terrified out of their wits — and this definitely includes the reader.

In subsequent issues, the Hulk destroys a scientist who experimented on his own son using gamma radiation to make him immortal, he gets a hole blown clear through his chest, he tangles with Walter Langowski, the Sasquatch from Alpha Flight, who’s become possessed by an undead spirit who might be either Bruce Banner’s father or the One Below All — the Devil itself — or maybe even both at the same time. He gets carved into chunks and stored — alive and aware — in big glass jars. He gets dragged down to Hell, where he spends a whole storyarc horribly emaciated. He gets his face torn off more than once, always in loving closeups. He gets overdosed on gamma radiation and turns into a tumor of Hulks. We even visit the end of time when the Hulk is the last being alive, monstrously powerful, controlled by the One Below All, a cosmic horror smashing his way through one universe after another.

And over all of this rises the mystery of the Green Door, a magical gateway every gamma mutate sees when they die. What is its purpose? How does it work? Who controls it?

And it turns out almost anyone with powers based on gamma radiation is going through their own terrible, horrific mutation. The Absorbing Man, who can drain gamma radiation, ends up with his body split open and his skull and spine waving in the air like a serpent when he absorbs too much. Betty Ross regains the ability to turn into the Harpy, but a far more powerful, horrific version, willing and eager to kill and eat anyone who gets in her way — including the Hulk himself. And the Abomination becomes an even more dreadful monster, an acid-spitting horror with a maddening, indescribable anatomy. Rick Jones is missing, presumed dead, for quite a while before he eventually shows up and starts making his own disturbing transformations. And the Leader? No one really knows where the Leader is…

And yes, there’s horror and body horror and battles against characters who should be familiar but have become bizarre and creeptastic, but we should also acknowledge that the character work here is thoroughly excellent. It’s not just that the gamma mutates change their personalities every time they shift shape, but the other supporting characters are all well-done, too. The two most important in this series are Jackie McGee — not the antagonistic reporter from the ’70s TV show, but an African-American reporter for the Arizona Herald, who’s following the Hulk to write articles about him — and General Reginald Fortean, the commander of Shadow Base, a secret anti-Hulk military project.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The key question is this: Is the series worth reading? And the answer is: You’re damn straight it’s worth reading. It’s great to see long-form horror starring familiar superhero characters, particularly Marvel’s original Silver Age horror character. Al Ewing’s writing, stories, and dialogue are all excellent, and Joe Bennett’s art is downright revelatory. His characters are wonderfully expressive, showing every moment of fear and pain, as well as layer upon layer of rage — and the horrors he shows off are, even for those of us protected by the impenetrable barrier of the comics page, surprisingly and sometimes gut-clenchingly terrifying.

The series won’t last forever — it’s probably got about a dozen issues to go, at this writing, before it reaches Issue #50, when Ewing plans the end. But there are plenty of collected editions you can pick up right now.

Is it worth reading? If you love the Hulk, if you love horror, if you love great comics, it’s not just worth reading, it’s required reading.

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