Gail Simone, Comics Badass

I came to comics fairly late in the game.  Sure, I’d read a couple of back issues here and there, including a reprint of an old Spider-Man story featuring the return of the Vulture and a few X-Men and Spider-Man 2099 comics my younger brother had laying about when we were wee little things, but I’d never been really into comics as a child.  I watched Batman: the Animated Series and the ’90s X-Men cartoon as religiously as any kid of a certain age did (which is to say, I could recite lines from those two shows better than I could the Bible, much to my mother’s chagrin), but they didn’t draw me into comics.

Part of it was lack of access.  There was a shop downtown that sold comics (and Magic cards, which I was pretty into in high school), but I never went down there as a child.  I didn’t have a car, and mom wasn’t about to take us downtown except to the library.

So, while I was aware of the big-name characters (your Batmans, your Supermans, your various Spider-Men), I had read basically nothing.

When I graduated college, I received two trade paperbacks as a gift from a dear friend: Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, two seminal ’80s Batman stories by Frank Miller (in case you’ve been in, like, a coma since 1984 or something).  And it sparked something in me.  During graduate school, I started collecting trades, but not single issues.  Single issues didn’t give you a whole story anymore.

atom3I can’t remember the first comic I read by Gail Simone.  It was probably a random issue of All-New Atom my friend Chad had sitting around in his apartment one evening.  I had no idea what all was really going on, but I loved the story.  It had adventure, humor, and her villains felt disturbing and evil and real.  I was hooked.  I needed to find more of her writing, and fast.

There was All-New Atom, which I already knew I liked.  From there, I found her Gen13 run, and Welcome to Tranquility.  Then I dug into her classic Birds of Prey.  Then her brief JLA story, and her run on Action Comics, and…

Well, you get the picture.  I was hooked.BoP

And then I found out she was going to write Wonder Woman.  It was like a match made in heaven.  Gail Simone, writing the most kick-ass of kick-ass lady superheroes.  I had to read it.

AUG080171.jpgAt the time, though, I still did not collect single issues.  I trade-waited everything, because it was more economical.  But DC put out trades slower than molasses in January back then.  A hardcover collection would come out six months after a particular storyline was completed, and the softback trade maybe six months to a year after that.  I couldn’t wait that long.

I went to the local comic shop – I’d been in there a time or two to buy a trade, but I’d always felt intimidated going in.  What if the folks running the place went all gatekeeper-y on me?  What if they judged my taste in books?  I was beyond anxious about the whole thing.

Turns out, I didn’t have anything to really worry about.  The folks running the place were approachable and friendly, and helped me set up a subscription box with Gail’s Wonder Woman and a few other comics.  I was officially a comic book person.

fruit-snack.pngAnd I’ve continued to follow pretty much every single thing Gail’s written since then.  She’s hands down my favorite comic writer.  Her ability to mix action, emotion, and deep characterization draw me in.  Her dialogue is natural and amazing.  Many of my favorite comic runs are written by Gail: Secret Six, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman Red Sonja.  She puts her heart into the things she writes, and she works harder than pretty much any other writer I’ve seen to be inclusive and open and welcoming to anyone and everyone in comics.

secret-six-shark.jpgGail is also a world-class Twitter troll.  She knows more about comics than about 90% of the comic book bros on Twitter, and she’ll purposely say outlandishly inaccurate things to set them all a-twitter (if you’ll pardon the expression).  If you ever want to see a bunch of guys not get it and “um, actually” a professional comic book writer, check out her Twitter feed.  It’s glorious.

Gail Simone is the reason I love comics.  She’s the reason I read as many as I do.  Her mixture of dark and heartfelt themes in her comics work are inspiring.  You can do really heavy, dark stories that have heart and humor at the same time, and I love every bit of it.  sonja-is-everybodys-type

Happy Valentine’s Day 2017

When I was a younger man, single and insecure and full of anxiety and dumb ideas, I was a bit of a sad sack.  Okay, a lot of a sad sack.  I moped around the campus fountain at midnight listening to sad songs on my Discman like some mooney-eyed twit.  And I made mix CDs of songs about love gone sour and losers.

Nowadays, I tend to mope less, mostly because I finally got medication and therapy.  Marrying an amazing woman helped, too.  While I don’t make mix CDs anymore (I make playlists on my phone instead, because it’s 2017), I do still enjoy putting together thematic lists for special occasions.  While I think of myself as less of a loser than I once did, I thought it might be fun to put together one more Loser List for Valentine’s Day.

Before the list, though, a few words on this holiday.  I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Maybe it’s a result of being single throughout college and grad school.  Maybe I resent being told I have to be romantic on a set day in a specific way (today’s comic is a pretty clear indicator that the Wife and I have our own unique brand of affection and romance).  Honestly, I don’t think there’s any real reason to feel obligated to do some big, ridiculous thing today, unless you really want to.  Some folks really love Valentine’s Day, and that’s great for them!  For the rest of us, let’s just act like it’s a regular ol’ Tuesday, and everyone has joined Garibaldi’s Red Shirts for the day for some weird reason.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the Losers List.

The Beatles, “I’m a Loser”: A Hard Day’s Night is one of my absolute favorite Beatles albums, and this manages to be one of the best songs on the record.

Beck, “Loser”: Like this song wasn’t going to show up on this list.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Even the Losers”: More a song of hope than anything else, it always gives me strength to think that even the losers can get lucky sometime.

The Avett Brothers, “Shame”: Sometimes we feel so sure of ourselves, only to realize we’re being tremendous assholes.

Bob Dylan, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”: Blood on the Tracks is full of sad songs of love gone wrong, but this is one of my favorites.

Cake, “Friend is a Four-Letter Word”: If early-20s me had an anthem, this was probably it.  If anyone needed a punch in the face, it was early-20s me.

Camera Obscura, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”: “‘Cause I can’t see further than my own nose at the moment.”  Brilliant.

Sting, “Seven Days”: Sting’s face is pretty punchable, too, if only because he refers to his rival as “Neanderthal.”

Jesse Malin, “She Don’t Love Me Now”: I’m a sucker for great horn arrangements.

Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do”: Your woman runs around on you while everyone’s at church?  Robert Plant feels your pain.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Echo Reconsidered

I’m a pretty big Tom Petty fan.  I’ve seen him in concert three times, the first on the Into the Great Wide Open tour (front row center, and I got Petty’s guitar pick at the end of the show!), then again for Wildflowers, and then on a tour where he just played greatest hits a few years ago.  It’s safe to say he’s one of my favorite musicians.

If I have to rank Petty’s albums (both solo and with the Heartbreakers), it’s pretty easy.  Wildflowers is sitting pretty at the top, followed closely (in no particular order, ’cause they’re too close to call) by Full Moon Fever, Damn the Torpedoes!, and Into the Great Wide Open.  Somewhere further down the list, after Hard Promises and Southern Accents but before Mojo and (shudder) The Last DJ, there’s Echo, the 1999 follow-up to Wildflowers (and the soundtrack to She’s the One, which was of a piece with Wildflowers).

When it initially came out, I enjoyed the record, but wasn’t all that impressed with it.  Wildflowers had set a ridiculously high bar for Tom Petty albums, after all.  You weren’t going to top that thing.  I really enjoyed “Room at the Top,” the album opener, and a few other tracks along the way, but it’s very telling that, with most Tom Petty albums, I can sing along to every single song without a problem.  But I can’t do that with Echo.  I know the choruses (Petty’s choruses are always catchy as hell), and I’m vaguely familiar with the songs, but they haven’t become ingrained in my brain the way, say, the songs from Into the Great Wide Open or Full Moon Fever have.  The album always felt too long: it’s 15 songs, over an hour long, and just felt too full.

But when I got into the car a few days ago, and decided I wanted to hear Echo, it was an opportunity to reevaluate the album and see if an older, wiser (?) Charlie could appreciate it in a way that 19-year-old me could not.

For starters, “Room at the Top” is still freakin’ awesome and a great opener.  It’s anthematic, hopeful, heartfelt, and just all-around great.  “Counting on You” is a solid, classic Petty song, and “Free Girl Now” rocks as hard as any of the rockers on Wildflowers.  “Swingin’,” with its extended baseball metaphor, kind of drags, but things pick up real quick with “Accused of Love,” which was one of my favorites from the album back in the day and holds up remarkably well.  The title track is a little too plodding for my tastes, but it’s not a bad song. “Won’t Last Long” is a tune in the same vein as “Won’t Back Down,” a statement of defiance and resilience.  “This One’s For Me” is a fun, strummy song that feels like classic Petty songwriting.  “About to Give Out” has a driving beat and is a lot of fun.  “Rhino Skin” is a weird song, but does feature the phrase “you need elephant balls,” which I’m kind of amazed he worked into a song with a straight face.

Overall, my estimation of Echo is a bit higher than it was when it came out 17 years ago.  Petty’s songwriting is as strong as ever, the band feel expressive and lively, and everyone sounds like they’re having a blast playing these tunes.  All pretty strange, considering it’s a post-divorce album (those’re typically dour affairs, even as they generate plenty of fodder for the songwriter’s muse).  Petty seemed to make some pretty damn good lemonade out of those lemons, if you ask me.

Favoites: Hamilton, An American Musical

I did a lot of theater in high school: Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Mousetrap, Wizard of Oz…it was a lot of fun, and helped me break out of my introverted shell.  I was a quiet kid, surprise surprise.

I never did well in any of the singing stuff (I had one of the few non-singing parts in Oz, as the ol’ wizard himself), but I always kind of enjoyed musicals.  Sure, they’re kinda ridiculous, but in my own experience it’s not uncommon for folks to break out into random song and dance.

All that said, I really haven’t ever paid much attention to musical theater.  It’s not that I have anything against most musicals, just that they never really seemed my style.  Rent was okay, Sweeny Todd was pretty excellent, but none of them ever grabbed me the way that so many of my theater friends were grabbed by musicals.

Then I heard Hamilton.

I’d heard a bunch of buzz about it late last year, seen people talking it up and heard everyone who had heard/seen it raving.  So I gave it a listen over Winter Break 2015.

First listen through didn’t really grab me, but I wasn’t paying very close attention.  Then I listened again.  And again.  And again.

And again and again and again.  Over and over.  I was hooked, and bad.  The last half-dozen songs put me in tears every time.  I drew several comics about the show.  Obsessed over it.  Started following Lin-Maneul Miranda (the writer and star of the show) on Twitter.

And then, in Februrary, I got to see it.

A dear friend – my musical partner, Emily – won free tickets (!) to see the show, with all of the original cast.  Sure, it was standing-room-only spots, deep under the balcony and behind a couple of posts, but we were there.  And we sang along, and I cried during the last several songs like I always do, and it was a perfect moment.

And, for every couple of weeks since then, I listen to the soundtrack a couple of times in a row.  I can get through most of the songs without crying now (still not the last couple, ’cause they’re so good and emotional), but it still fills a part of me that I hadn’t even known was empty.  While I’m not really a big fan of hip-hop, generally speaking, these songs speak to me in a way nothing else had before.

The show reminds me of what’s important: family.  Legacy.  Keeping to my principles.  Not throwing away my shot.  Writing like I’m running out of time.  I don’t know if history quite has its eyes on me (not the way I have my eyes on history in my day job, anyway), but that’s okay.

Paperback Writer

The Beatles were my first musical love.  It’s not that unusual, of course.  Lots of folks claim the Fab Four as their favorite band.  They’re one of the most popular bands in history, with scads of #1 hits, platinum albums, and a sound that, while it evolved from album to album, was always clearly and definitively them.

The first song I can remember singing is “Yellow Submarine.”  I couldn’t have been more than four or so, singing along with my dad while he strummed his guitar.  I’ve memorized their lyrics, listened to their albums over and over and over until they are etched upon every fiber of my being, watched the movies…hell, even Magical Mystery Tour, and that thing is difficult to watch.  I tear up at the end of Abbey Road with those final lyrics from “The End.”  And I’m a little bit obsessed with “Paperback Writer.”

Is “Paperback Writer” the reason I want to be a writer?  Maybe.  I’m not entirely sure.  But it doesn’t really matter, honestly.  It’s a bit of a mission statement for me, at this point.  I’m building up quite the backlog of written work now.  I’m well into book 5 (I know, book 1 isn’t going to be published until December, but hey, why wait to get ahead?), figuring out how to get the short stories back out there so folks can read them, and thinking ahead to what I can do in the future with Hazzard and maybe even some other characters and settings and genres.  Maybe I’m getting too far ahead of myself.  I still don’t know how well the first book will even sell, if there will even be a market for what I write.  But I kinda hope and think there might be.  Everyone likes snarky protagonists, right?  And mysteries that have actual, genuine clues scattered throughout, so the twist feels earned instead of just being a, “Haha, the killer was this character who had never even been mentioned until just now!”

I guess I’m saying I think I’m a pretty solid writer, and I think folks will like what I do.  And it’s probably all because of a song about a guy writing novels in his spare time.

Favorites: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

I’m an unapologetic Bob Dylan fan.  I’ll even listen to the crappy late ’70s/early ’80s born-again Christian albums that everyone agrees are absolute crap.  But my favorite, the one that I could listen to over and over again for the rest of my days, the one that would be in my “Desert Island Discs” top ten, is Highway 61 Revisited.

Yeah, it’s kind of the obvious choice.  With “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s guaranteed to be one of the best-known of Dylan’s albums, standing alongside his earlier folk albums and Blonde on Blonde as the ones that all the casual fans know about and probably have.

But I’m not some hipster who thinks popularity makes something bad.  There is, I think, a good reason that so many people like this record: it’s just really damn good.  Peak Dylan, firing on all cylinders and writing with a passion and a fire that could barely be contained.  From the first firecracker snare shot of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the plaintive harmonica wail that brings “Desolation Row” to an end, Highway 61 Revisited is everything I ever wanted in a rock and roll record.  Dylan is by turns thoughtful, aggressive, playful, and mystical, tapping into a mythic America that seems somehow more real than the actual one.