Author Archive

Damn Everything But the Circus

Hey, y’all know I’m always up to screaming about Nazis and how much we really ought to be shooting the hell out of all of ’em, right? But listen, I’m tired. This week has been a lot, and I’m tired. So instead, let’s do a review. Let’s look at The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen.

Jane Yolen’s long writing career has seen her creating classic works of fantasy, science fiction, children’s fiction, poetry, and more. Here she combines many of these interests and styles into a new collection of tales taking inspiration from the well-loved stories we read as kids, then spins them off in new, exciting directions.

Some of Yolen’s stories in this book include:

  • Andersen’s Witch – A boy from an impoverished family makes a deal to improve his future and the world around him — but what happens when it’s time to pay the witch?
  • Lost Girls – A girl is kidnapped from her world and forced to toil as a kitchen slave for an immortal swashbucking brat. Can she lead her fellow servants to freedom through the power of a union?
  • Blown Away – A girl is whisked away to new adventures during a tornado — but what happens to the family she’s left behind, and how will they react when she returns?
  • The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown – The strange and magical friendship between Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli is explored.
  • The Confession of Brother Blaise – A dying monk reveals the genesis of an Arthurian legend.
  • Rabbit Hole – An elderly Alice plans one final trip to Wonderland.
  • Sister Emily’s Lightship – An isolated poet discovers truth and art from beyond the stars.

On top of that, there’s a lengthy and glorious appendix on “Story Notes and Poems,” which includes some extra details about how each tale was created and a poem to go with each story. Extra value!

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are very few perfect anthologies, even by master writers, but this book seems notable by how few outright clunkers there are. And the less-great stories are certainly drowned out by the colossal volume of amazing ones, including the wonderfully funny (and character-stuffed) “Lost Girls,” the lyrical “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” the sumptuous “Evian Steel,” and the heart-stoppingly glorious “Blown Away.”

If you enjoy clever, humorous, and often beautiful stories, this one’s for you. Go pick it up.

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Blood of Dracula!

Dang, it is long past time for me to do some more reviews. Let’s take a look at one of the few comics I was able to buy last year: Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson.

We start out with a quick three-page preview from 1889 Vienna as Dracula’s brides turn on him, stake him into a coffin, and bury him.

And then we jump forward to 1974 Los Angeles, as a Hollywood starlet worrying about aging decides she may as well let the Lord of Darkness roam free.

After that, we meet Quincy Harker, an African-American photographer working to take pictures of gruesome murder scenes for the tabloids. And when he realizes somethings weird about some of the photos he’s taken, he ends up on the radar of Dracula and his new brides. And his only hope for survival is… Dracula’s old brides?

Does one schmuck with a camera have a hope in hell when matched up against the most powerful vampires on Earth?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Yeah, I didn’t put a lot of plot description up there. It’s not a long book — only about 70 pages long — and the plot is pretty straightforward. It don’t need a complex, convoluted plot to deserve a thumbs-up.

This one started out not being a big favorite — Quincy mostly served as a helpless nobody who had stuff happen to him, or who got helplessly dragged along by others. But that was because I was assuming he was the protagonist, expecting him to be Jim Kelly in “Black Belt Jones.”

But Quincy Harker isn’t the protagonist. The brides are. Quincy is there as a witness, and he has his part to play in the story as our viewpoint character. But Dracula and the brides are the ones who move the story.

And jeezum wow, can we do some screamin’ about the art on this book? So many of us are most familiar with Erica Henderson through her work on the very friendly “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” and this looks like she stored up every dark, bloody thought she’s had for the past decade just so she could unleash it on the page here.

It’s amazing, lush, absolutely glorious. The nighttime scenes of ’70s L.A. are lusciously decadent, the costume design is beautiful, and the design of Dracula himself is like nothing you’ve ever seen before in any medium. Ain’t very much human form for this guy — just eyes, mouths, and a couple of skinny, elongated arms. His design is the type of thing you’ll probably see in a movie someday, from a design studio that’ll probably have to pay Erica Henderson a decent chunk of change.

My lone quibble about this is the title. Dammit, I just want us to be able to say “Motherfucker” in the title of a book or comic and not have to resort to asterisks.

Anyway, this is a great book, and you should definitely go pick it up.

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Easy Prediction: 2021 Will Be Worse

Well, everyone agrees that 2020 was the worst year since, basically, 2016. And lots of folks expect 2021 to be a much better year, because what could be worse than this one, right?

Predictions are, of course, a mug’s game. No one can know the future, psychic powers do not exist, and the future will always, always, always surprise us.

Nevertheless: Kids, it’s going to get so much worse.

Let’s start off with the obvious. COVID-19 got worse after Thanksgiving, when all the stupid, selfish nihilists had big dinners with lots of people and spread the virus far and wide. It’ll get worse after Christmas, when all the stupid, selfish nihilists had big family gatherings with lots of people and spread the virus far and wide. It’ll get worse again after New Year’s, when all the stupid, selfish nihilists will have big stupid parties with lots of people and spread the virus far and wide.

The vaccines will help, but the stupid, selfish nihilists will insist they don’t want them. Just like they don’t want masks. And they’ll keep spreading the virus far and wide.

We are, unfortunately, living in a society full of deeply stupid people who get all their instructions straight from their Mango Messiah, deeply selfish people who think their convenience and comfort is more important than other people’s lives, deeply nihilistic people who dream of setting the world on fire and dancing in the flames because lolol nothing matters.

What else we got? Kids, terrorism is probably gonna go through the fucking roof.

And we’re not talking about Shadowy Muslims blowing up buildings and shooting up shopping malls. We’re talking about very white, very Christian, very Republican Trump worshipers blowing up buildings and shooting up shopping malls. ‘Cause they ain’t adjusting well to their God-Emperor getting shown the door, and most of them would much rather cast out everything they claimed to believe about the greatness of American democracy, murder innocent people, and live in a full-on fascist dictatorship than deal with the fact that a (depressingly slim) majority of Americans don’t believe Nazis are Very Fine People.

“Well, heck, you’re over-reacting! It’s not like we’ve had a lot of terrorism already! I mean, other than the plot to execute the governor in Michigan. And the bombing in Nashville on Christmas Day. And hordes of Proud Boys, undercover cops, and neo-Nazis running wild and assaulting people every few weeks.”

Honestly, I think they’re just getting warmed up. Here’s this dude who lived through a similarly dumb coup attempt, and he says the terrorist attacks started about four months after everyone thought the nonsense was settled. I suspect America’s conservatives, mostly driven to madness by having to share power with women and brown people, are going to go wild with violence or, for those too sensible to pick up a gun or blow up an elementary school, making excuses for violence.

And the press, addicted to the fat ratings and profits of the tabloid Trump era, will be absolutely overjoyed by it all.

But enough about unimportant national news, right? What about the important stuff? What about comics?!

Heck, I have a really hard time saying much. I haven’t lived within four hours of a decent comic book shop in over four years. I don’t know what the big events are. I never hear anything about comics that are getting the big positive buzz. Sometimes, I’m not even really sure what’s getting published. But it still doesn’t feel good to me.

DC Comics got hit with a sledgehammer this year because AT&T decided they don’t care about comics, only IP. And Marvel’s head honchos are either Trumper loons or racist sock-puppet flatscans — plus their parent company has decided they don’t like the idea of paying royalties to writers. I don’t think any of those make for a healthy company. One willing to starve their comics division to maybe, possibly fund some movies and TV shows, and the other slaved to untrustworthy men and an untrustworthy parent that doesn’t value its creators.

I’m not even very optimistic about the various comics-based movies and TV shows. What I worry about is whether movie audiences decided the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s story was completed with the “Endgame” film — and thus may be unwilling to buy into a new phase of the project with new movies, new characters — but without Iron Man and Captain America, two of the series’ most popular characters.

A lot of the new Marvel movies and TV shows sound pretty interesting — but if the audiences don’t show up for them, can the studio continue to greenlight ’em?

As for DC’s movies — I need to see some more evidence that they’ve abandoned the grimdark dumbness brought on by Zack Snyder.

In both cases, I’m really nervous about the idea of jamming theaters with mountains of superhero movies when we’re not even sure if there’s still an appetite for that much stuff. Overwhelming indifferent audiences seems like a good way to release a bunch of flops and killing off the superhero movie for good.

I’m not a complete pessimist. I think we’ll get COVID-19 under control eventually — maybe by summer, maybe after that. I think the economy will start to claw its way back — but the process will be helped along if the Democrats in the Senate realize they can make some improvements by pushing Mitch McConnell down a flight of stairs. And I think some comics will continue to be very profitable — namely graphic novels aimed at younger readers, including books by Raina Telgemeier, Dav Pilkey, and plenty of others, which generally have sales that make DC and Marvel look like indie publishers.

Still — just because 2020 was bad doesn’t mean 2021 is gonna be a lot better. Y’all be careful out there.

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Welcome Back to Christmas

My friends, none of us have a single good thing to say about this absolute tire fire of a year. COVID-19 turned everything upside down, the comics industry started collapsing, Trump was in office all goddamn year.

We lost so very many great people. We lost Chadwick Boseman, Wilford Brimley, Kobe Bryant, Mary Higgins Clark, Sean Connery, Richard Corben, Mac Davis, Kirk Douglas, Mort Drucker, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stuart Gordon, Ian Holm, Grant Imahara, Terry Jones, Tiny Lister, Little Richard, Ennio Morricone, Denny O’Neil, Martin Pasko, John Prine, Carl Reiner, Diana Rigg, Kenny Rogers, Richard Sala, Joel Schumacher, Joe Sinnott, Jerry Stiller, Alex Trebek, Eddie Van Halen, Max von Sydow, and Fred Willard, among far too many others.

I know my expectation is that, somehow, 2020 will find a way to get even worse in its final week. But for now… well, it’s Christmas, and even in 2020, that’s not bad. So let’s have some fun with some comics covers.

Y’all have a merry one, please. Let’s try to squeeze a little goodness outta 2020.

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Stories Within Stories

Awright, it’s Christmas Week, and nothing’s slowed down yet! Everything’s still goin’ crazy! Who has time to review anything? I DO, BECAUSE I LOVE YOU ALL SO MUCH I JUST GOTTA BRING Y’ALL MORE REVIEWS!

So we’re gonna review a short novel called Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Our story follows Desmond Coke, a Jamaican spy turned renegade, who is escorting a quiet, strange boy named Lij as they flee through an alternate-steampunk version of the Wild West while trying to escape from agents of the global empire of Albion.

They run into far too much trouble in the Free Republic of Tejas, but manage to cut through a bunch of corporate mercenaries. Unfortunately, the gun-slinging Pinkerton agent Cayt Siringo is a more dangerous foe, but they still manage to hobble over the border into the Assembly of First Nations, but not even this most technologically advanced territory may be able to protect them from their enemies.

Can Desmond and Lij escape to freedom? Can they find anyone they can trust? And what is the secret hiding in Lij’s genes?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Broaddus’ novella revs up fast and rarely slows down. The action is excellent, and the settings, particularly the extremely high-tech Assembly of First Nations, are lots of fun.

Characterization is also a very strong point. Desmond and Lij are both skillful and subtle creations, but some of the secondary characters are especially great, like the desperate but mannerly Cayt, the dignified fury of Inteus, and the calm, commanding, but compassionate Kajika.

It’s also a story about stories. Seems like everyone tells stories to Lij at one time or another, generally about legends and mythology. He’s on the run because someone decided they could decide what the story of his life was going to be — the stories show him he can decide for himself.

If you’re looking for grand, action-packed fantasy with a steampunk-Western twist and a fun, diverse cast, you’ll want to pick this up.

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Odds and Ends

Hey, here’s some stuff I feel like I shoulda mentioned before!

Bullet Point! Baxter, the foster dog we were taking care of a while back, has now moved on to his Forever Home and Forever Daddy off in the distant wilds outside Marfa, Texas. He’s getting along great with his new big brother and greatly enjoying living in the country, where he gets to snuffle his nose in all the wet cow poop he wants. He’s probably forgotten us already, which is really the point of being a foster, to be honest.

The only thing about the whole situation I’m not happy about is learning that he has to get rattlesnake vaccinations now. Who even knew there was such a thing as rattlesnake vaccinations?!

Okay, here’s another picture of Baxter. He’s a good boy!

And next: Bullet Point! Hats off for Richard Corben, superstar comic artist, who died last week. He did art for Heavy Metal, Meat Loaf albums, Hellboy comics, and a bunch of other weird, glorious, gorgeous projects.

Let’s look at a little Richard Corben art:

Bullet Point! Disney announced a massive buttload of new Marvel and Star Wars movies and TV shows, as well as casting news and photos for their programs, including WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Hawkeye, Loki, What If?, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more.

Can I just say they really need to slow this stuff down a lot? I like superhero stuff as much as anyone, but I’m really not sure there’s that much appetite for so much superhero content on TV and in the movies. I suspect a lot of mainstream audiences figured “Endgame” wrapped up the Marvel Cinematic Universe nicely, and there’s not a guarantee they want more. Better to release one or two movies, see how audiences react, and go from there, rather than jump to a massive glut of Marvel movies and pray people will care.

Besides, why care too hard about Disney stuff when they’re balking at paying their contracted royalties to creators?

Bullet Point! Hats off for Tom “Tiny” Lister, who died just a few days ago. Like most character actors, he had certain kinds of roles he specialized in — namely, the absolutely terrifying black man — with more than enough skill to subvert those roles, whether for comedy, as Deebo in “Friday” or President Lindberg in “The Fifth Element,” or for pure drama, in his small but massively impactful role in “The Dark Knight” as the prisoner who throws the detonator out of the prison ferry.

I can’t say Lister was the best actor in “The Dark Knight,” because he was onscreen for such a brief period. But he doubtless played the part of the most purely moral character in the movie — a man who uses his fearsome appearance solely to preserve life — and he sold the role beautifully.

Bullet Point! It turns out it’s not a good feeling at all knowing that 70 million people and almost every elected Republican at every level of government believes Nazis are Very Fine People and that democracy must be destroyed.

Is there anyone left out there saying we need to reach across the aisle to these people, to learn how they think? Anyone still saying Biden should pardon Trump for the good of the country? I sure hope not, ’cause anyone still saying nonsense like that is a goddamn idiot.

Probably the only way we’ll ever save this country is to somehow get every Trump supporter in the country stuffed into an unmarked grave somewhere — which means it’s probably impossible to save America, ’cause the only people with the drive to execute that many people… are Trumpers and their fellow Nazis.

As I’ve said far too often: (1) if you’ve got the ability to flee the country, do so as quickly as you can. Save yourself, save your family, save your friends, save a few folks from vulnerable populations and (2) The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi.

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Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree

Y’all, I’m starting to think I’m just bad at blogging.

Is the problem that it’s December, and Christmas is just a couple weeks off, and life is too busy right now? Yes, it is. Is the problem that I’m rapidly running out of books and comics that I can review? Yes, it is.

Is the problem that I’m really, really lazy? Yes, it definitely is.

So I dug one of my old GURPS characters out of storage, just to fill some space and get a post done. Let’s see what he’s like.

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 Andre Bonart, a blacksmith in the Wild West.

Name: Andre Bonart
Total Points: 100
Appearance: White male; Age 19; 6’1″, 170 lbs.; black hair (mostly bald); blue eyes; bushy mustache; burly, muscular build; tends to overdress for most occasions when not on the job.

Statistics:
ST: 14 [45]
DX: 11 [10]
IQ: 11 [10]
HT: 11 [10]
Speed: 5.5
Move: 5
Dodge: 5

Advantages:
Animal Empathy [5] (Reaction: +2/+4)
Attractive [5] (Reaction: +1)
Common Sense [10]
High Pain Threshold [10]

Disadvantages:
Charitable [-15]
Gluttony [-5]
Honesty [-10]
Stubbornness [-5]

Quirks: Dislikes violence; Eats only two very large meals a day; Sings loudly while working; Speaks French to all animals; Strict Catholic. [-5]

Skills: Animal Handling-14* [2]; Armoury/TL6 (Rifles and Handguns)-10 [1]; Bard-11 [2]; Blacksmith/TL6-13 [6]; Brawling-12 [2] (Parry: 8); Carousing-11 [2]; First Aid/TL6-10 [½]; Fishing-11 [1]; Guns/TL6 (Rifle)-12 [1]; Intimidation-11 [2]; Mechanic/TL6 (Wagons)-11 [2]; Merchant-12 [4]; Packing-13* [1]; Riding (Horse)-14* [1]; Singing-11 [1]; Stealth-9 [½]; Streetwise-10 [1]; Teamster-14* [1]; Veterinary/TL6-14* [2].
*Cost modifiers: Animal Empathy.

Languages: English-11 [2]; French (native)-11 [0]

Biography: Andre was born in Kansas City to recent French migrants. As a youngster, he was befriended by a local blacksmith and eventually was apprenticed to him. When he skilled enough to open his own shop, he decided to move further west, ending up in a small town in Montana. He’s mostly content to quietly run his shop, but he’s already found himself pushed occasionally to take leadership roles and to protect locals who are in trouble.

Design Notes: What the heck, man, another Wild West character? Don’t you write a comics blog? Where’s the superheroes? Well, honestly, I kinda like making Western characters. They’re nicely uncomplicated, generally, with plenty of room to make them offbeat and fun. If I post more Western characters, though, I think I’ll start working harder to tweak their personality or abilities to make them even more fun.

Seriously, I’ve got a ton of these characters — I feel like I could post way more of them than I do.

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Irresistible Orbit

We’ve already talked a bit about the “Wayfarers” series, with our previous review of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” remember? Well, let’s check out the sequel — A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

So Chambers’ followup to her much-loved debut novel leaves the crew of the Wayfarer behind and focuses on a couple characters who were mostly supporting cast in the first book. Pepper is a genius with electronics, and she helped out the crew of the Wayfarer several times, while Lovelace used to be the Wayfarer’s AI. After an accident wiped out her memories and reloaded her with her old default programming and personality, she was uploaded into a new hypertech artificial body. Unfortunately, giving Artificial Intelligences realistic bodies is illegal, and if she’s caught, she’ll be destroyed, and those who helped her will suffer severe penalties. Now Lovelace has to learn how to function out in the real world, with the aid of Pepper and her friends.

This novel follows a couple different storylines. In the first, Lovelace interacts with the world around her, chooses Sidra as her new name (Lovelace is a common program for AIs and would cause too much trouble for her if she kept it as a name), tries to figure out ways around the limitations of her new body, cautiously makes new friends in Blue and Tak, and endures a few personal crises on her way to becoming the best person she can be.

In the second storyline, we backtrack to Pepper’s childhood as Jane 23, a cloned factory slave. After she escapes into the desolate wastes of her hostile world, she must fight for her survival, with her only shelter a broken-down spaceship and her only companion an outdated but deeply loving AI named Owl.

As with Chambers’ first book, the characterizations truly shine, and the compassion of the writing really drive the book forward. Pepper’s lonely and frightening childhood and Lovey’s lonely and frightening transition from disembodied intelligence to bipedal life form are countered beautifully by the friendships they build — with abandoned humans, with understanding aliens, with an old AI willing to devote herself to keeping a lost child alive, and sometimes with surprise doses of kindness delivered by unexpected people — soon after Jane’s rescue from her wasteland exile, for example, she’s offered a simple hug from a large, intimidating alien who understands how stressful and traumatic her new life has become.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should certainly go check it out. We live in a rough and often unkind world. You deserve to enjoy some of this compassionate, diverse, welcoming, and vastly wonderful science fiction.

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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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