Friday, April 29, 2011

Old Trade Review: Garth Ennis' 303

Garth Ennis' 303 is one of those books that I really like but also really pisses me off. On the one hand it's full of Ennis' signature punchy dialogue, terse, effective narrative voice and fucking brutal violence. I love all that shit. Garth Ennis is one of my top ten comic book writers, mostly for his work on Punisher: Max. But I think he makes some major missteps here.

I'm going to spoil this book, so be warned.

The basic plot is like this: there's a Spetsnaz team walking through the Afghan highlands, heading towards the site of a crashed American plane. They don't really know what's in the crash, but they know that everyone else wants it. Ignore the fact that it's completely unrealistic for a Spetsnaz team to be in Afghanistan since they aren't part of the Coalition forces there - let's assume they're just that good, that they can slip into the country without the Brits or us noticing. See, I'm willing to suspend some disbelief here. Anyway, the commanding officer is some old, grizzled Soviet relic who's an incredible shot with pretty much any kind of firearm and has killed countless people with steely resolve. He's haunted by the ghosts of those he's killed, which is supposed to give him some humanity, or something. Some shit happens with some pussy young Spetsnaz soldiers, I guess to show that soldiers in general ain't who they used to be, blah blah. Except the SAS of course. There's an SAS brick going to check out the crash, but they don't show up right away. When they do they're clearly tits on glass, cracking wise, admiring the Russians while still being very British and infinitely competent soldiers. Then there are some Apache gunships heading to the crash from the nearest FOB or whatever. Eventually everyone meets up at the crash site, and a bunch of bloodshed goes down. The old Russian Colonel is the only survivor (of course), and finds what everyone wants to grab at the crash site. It's some recording and papers that implicate a high-level corporate bad guy who's a crony of the President of some sort. The details don't really matter. The point is that good men's lives are being wasted just to protect some asshole corporate fat cat just so the Administration won't look bad. The Colonel all reflective as he leaves the site of battle. He realizes that he really needs to kill somebody special. He picks up the old .303-caliber Lee-Enfield rifle (the titular "303," of course), which is a British rifle, and starts walking out of Afghanistan. He eventually gets to America and a bunch of shit happens with Mexican immigrants and fat American industrialists, which I'm not going to talk about because I don't really care, and then he eventually assassinates the President of the United States. With the only round for the Lee-Enfield that he carried with him all the way from Afghanistan. From something like 1000 meters with iron sights. Yeah. Seriously.

I get his whole thing with Russian soldiers. It shows through in my favorite Punisher: Max arc, "Man of Stone." It's not a coincidence that both of these stories are set in Afghanistan and involve aging, badass ex-Soviet officers. There's definitely an appeal to the Cold Warriors on the other side of the Iron Curtain - especially when they're apolitical, super-fucking-tough commandos with giant brass balls. These guys aren't in it for any Collective and probably don't even know what the 5-Year Plan was. They just fight for Mother Russia because they really think of their country that way. I can admire that, because I see the United States the same way. I'm not here to talk about politics, those of my government or my own, though.

The American soldiers, on the other hand, they only come into this story briefly. You see a few B1 bombers carpet bombing some civilians, and the Apache pilots who kill the SAS boys. So they're all evil, ruthless bastards who only kill from safely in the air. Obviously that's going to piss me off, being a US Army Infantry Captain who's in Afghanistan as I type this. Now, I'm not saying unequivically that we've never done anything like that in this country, especially because it's portrayed as a black-ops thing and I wouldn't know anything about that. But I'm saying that I highly doubt it. We've done some things over here, sure, shit we probably shouldn't have, but right now I can say that we are 100% focused on the Afghan people and their government. Our Rules of Engagement are insane and sometimes dudes end up getting blown up because they're afraid of shooting a local who they pretty much know is bad and has a suicide vest under his mandress. My Battalion's main focus is "partnership," meaning developing the Afghan National Army and Police. And that shit's for real, this isn't some feel-good Fox News story about our boys helping build a school. We help train the ANA and ANP, help them get better at securing their own people, try to root out corruption, all that. We're mostly past the door-kicking shit these days. There's a lot of shooting ranges, driving school, generator maintenance classes, drinking chai with the locals and teaching Afghan military and police officers how to run this shit properly.

But what about the Russians? When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan from December '79 to February of '89, they killed unarmed civilians all the fucking time. The Soviets weren't there to develop the Afghan government and military so they can take care of themselves, they were there to subjugate and annex the country. And I think we can all agree that's a bad thing. Estimates of Afghan deaths range from 1 to 2 million. And 5-10 million Afghans fled their homeland to Iran and Pakistan. That was one third of the national population at the time. I've seen old videos of Mi-24 gunships doing strafing runs on Afghan villages, just straight wasting women and children with 5000 rounds per minute of 12.7mm FMJ. So why are the Russians shown as being the stoic, "just fighting for their country" soldiers and the Americans are evil, ugly, heartless bastards? That's what pisses me off, it's like Ennis was just ignoring all the history that I know he's aware of. All you have to do is read the massacre flashback scene in "Man of Stone" to see that Ennis knows the Russians did that shit.

The scene with the Apache pilots is also just shitty writing - a clear case of not doing the research. Usually you can tell how much Ennis reads up on a subject before writing about it. But this time, I don't think he did. The scene goes down like this: the aforementioned SAS team finds the crashed plane that everyone is looking for first. The Spetsnaz team shows up not long after and the SAS masterfully outfight them, killing all but the old Colonel. The Colonel hides behind some rocks and takes out a few SAS guys before the Apaches show up. When they do, they hover in full view of two SAS operators - clearly friendlies - and open fire anyway, shredding both the good British Boys. Believing that everyone is dead after a few strafing runs, the Apaches land near the crashed plane and get out to look around. This is when the Colonel and the SAS team leader kill the Apache pilots. Anybody who knows anything about US Army doctrine and especially about aviators could immediately point out how very, very ridiculous this is. First of all, Apaches engage targets from as far away as possible. They would have been looking at the SAS operators through forward-looking infrared scopes from hundreds of meters away, and then shred them from that distant. Even worse, Apache pilots dont ever land anywhere outside the wire. Kiowas do that sometimes, and they also kill people from close range, so he could have used OH-58 pilots for this scene and I would have almost believed it. But even if he did, you're really going to tell me that a US Army pilot is going to look a couple of British SAS guys in the eye and then waste them from fifty meters away? No way. Friendly fire happens, sure, and sometimes it might not be accidental, but those are cases of personal vengeance and shit like that. No American soldier is just going to cold-bloodedly murder friendly soldiers, and especially not the British. Yeah, us and the Brits talk plenty of shit to and about each other. But when it comes right down to it there isn't another military that we have a better relationship, or more admiration for. Maybe the IDF, but nobody else. I don't care what special, black-bag, evil, snake-and-baby-eating unit those pilots were from, but I just can't buy them doing what they did in that scene. And the only black-ops aviators out there are the 160th SOAR, who don't even have Apaches anyway. Or Kiowas, for that matter. Didn't Ennis watch Blackhawk Down?

Then there's the Presidential assassination. Okay, I can cosign the whole long-range iron-sights shooting to show how old-school and skilled the Colonel is. But what the fuck does assassinating him even do? It sure as hell won't stop the War on Terror. We elected Barak Obama for that and he's only sent more troops to Afghanistan. Ennis kind of acknowledges that at the end, but then what the fuck's the point?

Ultimately, I feel like Garth Ennis shoehorned American soldiers into a villain role that my brothers don't deserve or fit, and he threw in an assassination of a President that has to be George W. Bush as an obvious and almost grotesquely childish fantasy kill. It reads like sloppy writing, and I can't stand that. He's really better than that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Drawing: Old Man Bronco

This is a sketch I did of one of my main characters I write fiction about, Brady "Bronco" Halligan. I drew it in my green Army notebook during an extra-boring staff meeting. I really liked how it came out so I put it on here and my deviantArt account. The date on the drawing is wrong.

Bronco Halligan in Burgas during the Bulgarian Civil War, 2073 A.D. He's relaxing with a bottle of beer here.


May 2072, married and settled at the age of 63, Bronco Halligan is attacked by old enemies from his time as a mercenary in Nigeria while driving with his wife to a birthday party. His car is hit by a rocket on the left side. Shannon Halligan was driving, and not much is left of her. Bronco loses his entire left arm and shoulder and suffers severe lacerations on the left side of his face, losing his left eye and much of his outer left ear. Emergency surgery and cybernetic implants save his life. The same attackers have drained most of his various bank accounts and he goes into debt with the private hospital for his surgery and prosthetics. Bronco quickly becomes desperate for work, going back to his old contacts for mercenary jobs, despite his thirteen year old promise to his now-dead wife that he would never fight for money again. Not only does he need to pay his medical bills, he has to put all four of his legitimate daughters through college and continue paying child support for his six illegitimate daughters.

September, the Bulgarian Civil War sparks off between the long-dominant Socialist Party and the National Party. The Nationals are led by Prince Beltran Borisov Sakskoburggotski, with General Valko Tsvetanov, the Director of National Intelligence, as his right-hand-man and supreme military commander.

January of 2073, Valko contacts his old friend Bronco who fought with him as a mercenary during the Balkan Wars of the late 2030's. Bronco puts together an elite mercenary team of forty-three that he calls the Heimdall Group after the Norse god of Vigilance. He and his group help train the National Party militia as well as act as a direct-action special forces unit. Bronco himself is a Special Military Adviser to the Prince.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Old Trade Review: Daughters of the Dragon

This trade was published in October of 2006, but I only read it this past December. For those of you who haven't picked it up yet, you need to.

First, let me talk about Khari Evans. The first time I saw his work was on the Shanna the She-Devil: Survival of the Fittest trade. I bought that because I liked Frank Cho's Shanna mini-series and figured I should read what came next. But I remember thinking, "who's this Khari Evans character?" I'd never heard the name, but the cover looked good. So I picked up the book last August. The storyline was underwhelming but the art had a certain something. It was the facial expressions, the way the characters moved, the way they dressed and did their hair and all that. It was fucking real. Sure, Evans' style is sketchy and stylized, but he draws real people. Many other artists can't say the same thing.

Then, sometime in October or November, I was reading one of my favorite comics blogs that was new to me at the time - 4thletter! - and read this post by the brilliant David Brothers. Now, prior to reading that, I'd never heard of Daughters of the Dragon. I had no idea who Colleen Wing was and only the vaguest of Misty Knight. I'd read some Power Man & Iron Fist here and there as a kid but didn't really know the characters. Before sometime last spring I hadn't read much mainstream Marvel comics since the nineties, which should explain why I hadn't. I kept up with continuity when I felt like it, but that was about it. Something about Brothers' write-up on Evans and how he portrayed Misty and Colleen so well really called out to me. I realized that they were "street heroes," which is exactly what I wanted to read right then. A story about low-powered, down-to-earth heroes that could concentrate on the characters instead of some huge continuity event that's more about spectacle and saving the world and all that boring bullshit.

I finally ordered it in December along with Immortal Iron Fist Volume 3: The Book of the Iron Fist (since it had Evans on art, but that's for another post). And it was one of the best comic-buying decisions I had ever made. I already knew that comics publishers like Dark Horse, Oni, Vertigo and Icon were putting out great books every month. Titles like Hellboy, The Goon
, Queen & Country, Scalped, and Criminal. But I had pretty much written off superhero comics completely. Daughters of the Dragon brought me back.

The art was as expected - fantastic. As I said earlier, Evans draws real people. Colleen and Misty both have very unique styles, but I believe that they would wear those clothes. Misty's outfits are a little over-the-top and outrageous, but it absolutely fits her personality. She dresses like a cross between a hip-hop diva and a street warrior. Colleen dresses a little more conservatively in tracksuits and the like. She wears various pairs of athletic shoes, the kind of shoes people wear when they're doing active stuff like, y'know, kicking the shit out of people and impaling them with a katana. No stilettos or spandex costumes here. Even Ricadonna, the Big Bad who wears heels when in civvies, switches to practical footwear when it's ass-kicking time.

Both girls also have distinct hairstyles that change throughout the miniseries. Colleen generally wears her hair long and loose, which you'd think would get in the way of samurai kung-fu action, but hey, it's still a comic book. Misty has an awesome retro-70's 'fro, sometimes with just the front part braided. Again, they have real people hair, not ridiculous giant top ponytails or anything equally silly.

And they move like real women. Yeah, there's plenty of T&A here, but it's all in the line of duty. Misty and Colleen don't just stand around posing, hips cocked out and backs arched. When they aren't fighting they walk around like badass chicks with attitude, sit on couches and easy chairs the way girls do. When they fight, their woman-parts tend to move around some, especially Misty's. She is based on Pam Grier, so she has plenty up top to bounce around. Colleen even comments that Misty doesn't wear underwear, which seems like the pot calling the kettle black. Either way, both these girls look all natural, no silicone spheres, toothpick legs and wasp waists.

Then there's the writing. Palmiotti and Gray, a duo I learned to love on
Power Girl (okay so I was reading some superhero books, but not for the right reasons), were easily able to stand up to Evans' art. The dialogue between Misty and Colleen is snappy, funny and convincing. Each character has her own distinct voice. There are many great lines in the book, but my personal favorite is when the girls show up at Punisher's warehouse to borrow some weapons for the climax showdown, and Colleen checks out Frank's collection of chainsaws: "Do much logging in Brooklyn?"

The characters are great. Misty and Colleen not only have their own voices, but their own personalities that really come through in the writing. Misty is hot-headed, emotional and has a violent temper. She has insecurities that she wants to keep hidden, but Colleen knows her too well. Colleen is cool and collected, but not emotionless by any means. The girls play very well off each other and have a convincing relationship. We don't have to be told that they're best friends with a lot of history - it comes through clearly. I really cared about both of them throughout the story. Misty and Colleen are real people, not just hot babes in tight clothes.

The plot isn't anything mind-blowing. A bunch of D-list villains steel a MacGuffin (a computer chip) from a new villainess named Ricadonna. She's a hot Italian chick who runs a fashion line or magazine or something (it's never quite clear) as a front for taking over a good piece of the Mafia action in the New York Metro area. Ricadonna also appears to be a kung-fu master and also is proficient with firearms. She starts killing off the thieves one by one, and Humbug, probably the most ridiculous of them all, approaches Misty Knight to try to save his own life. He gives her the chip, which turns out to be some sort of doomsday computer virus that Ricadonna plans to sell to the highest evil bidder at an evil auction to be held in a few days. Ricadonna appears on the scene, beats the shit out of Misty and takes back the chip, setting everything up for the final showdown. Danny Rand joins up with the girls, which is great because you can never have too much Iron Fist. They all show up at the auction and a huge beatdown ensues. It doesn't really matter that we've all seen this before, because it's still awesome every time, and the characters are so good.

It's really too bad this didn't become an ongoing series, although it paved the way for the Heroes for Hire ongoing that came out soon after. It's great to see a book with lead characters that are both female and minorities. Daughters of the Dragon: Samurai Bullets is a great change of pace and an all-around great story. Read it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Max & Linnea

So I took a couple years off from this blog thing. I'm deployed to Afghanistan now and have a few months left before we're done with the year and go back to Germany. Maybe I'll actually start doing this regularly, but don't count on it.

This is something I wrote back in 2007 for one of my senior Creative Writing workshops at Binghamton University. I usually write violent cyberpunk so this was an exercise in writing about "normal" people in the present day.

Max sat on Linnea’s bed, intently watching her feed a live baby mouse to her pet Chinese water dragon. She held the white mouse by its pink tail squirming less than an inch from the lizard’s head. The water dragon ignored it and closed his eyes.
“C’mon, Dog, eat the damn thing,” Linnea coaxed, shaking the mouse.
“Why the hell did you name it ‘Dog’ again?” Maxed asked. She turned around and tossed her brown hair.
“I told you. Because my dad wouldn’t let me get a real dog.”
“Yeah, well, you’re dad’s a douche-bag.” Linnea waved her hand dismissively and turned back to the terrarium. Dog was still ignoring the mouse. She sighed and dropped it on the gravel where it crawled around the cage futilely seeking an exit.
“He’ll eat it later, I’m sure,” she said.
“I’m sure.” She hunched over his iPod, switching the selection to Shivaree’s “Goodnight Moon.” Ambrosia Parsley’s haunting, sensual voice poured from the attached compact speakers.

Max was in Syracuse for a Zao show when he met Linnea. The show was at The Furnace, and it was good. Zao was the headline act, of course, and their opener was a shitty local act that Max could never remember the name of. The other three bands were good, and Zao was incredible. Max and Darryl met Brett and Jonas at the back of the venue after Zao finished their set.
“Fuckin’ badass,” Brett said. Jonas just nodded, his big arms crossed over his bigger belly.
“Yeah it was,” Darryl said.
“Oh yeah, so there’s this party in South Onondaga in like an hour,” Brett said. “You guys wanna come?”
“Yeah,” Max said. “We don’t have work tomorrow.”
“Sweet,” Brett said.
In like an hour, after collectively eating a tremendous quantity of Tully’s Tenders at Tully’s, Max and Darryl followed Brett and Jonas to the party house. The drive included a shortcut through the Onondaga Reservation, where Max joked about the “red trash” and their run down houses and rusting cars.
Max pulled his ’73 Challenger into the driveway behind Brett’s ’02 Prizm. Pounding dance music from the white ranch house was clearly audible from the front walk.
“Nobody calls the cops?” Max asked.
“Nah, the only neighbors are the old deaf couple right there,” Jonas said, pointing at the blue two-story next to the ranch house. “Nobody else lives for a few miles around.”
“Cool,” Max said. “Who lives here, exactly?”
“Some bitches we know from high school,” Brett said. “Amy and Bri Cresskill. Sluts, but hot as hell, and they throw fuckin’ good parties. Parents aren’t home, obviously.”
The four guys walked into the Cresskill house. A large group of teenagers and twentysomethings yelled at each other over Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” blaring from oversize speakers in the living room.
“It’s the hardcore boys!” Amy violently hugged Jonas and then Brett. “Who’d you bring with you?”
“This is Max and Darryl,” Brett said, gesturing over his shoulder. “These losers are from fuckin’ Binghamton.”
“Weak,” Amy said with a brilliant smile. She tossed her reddish curls. “Welcome to our house, boys.” She drew the last word out into a purr, arching her back to accentuate her Wonderbra cleavage.
“Yeah, where’s the beer?” Darryl asked.
“The keg’s, this way,” Amy said, making an exaggerated ‘come this way’ gesture to match her dramatic pause.
Within ten minutes Amy was desperately in heat with Darryl, and Max wandered off in search of other options. He watched two loud, belligerent overweight girls playing beer pong against a slim Asian girl and her jock boyfriend. Another girl was watching the game intently, and Max immediately gave her his full attention. His eyes were first caught by her round, pretty face and shiny brown hair, but his gaze quickly wandered to the rest of her. A Led Zeppelin angel was stretched almost unrecognizably across her large breasts. Her thick waist, rounded stomach and wide hips did nothing to deter Max’s attraction. He moved around the table to stand next to her.
“Are you playing next?”
“What?” she looked slightly shocked. “Oh. Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Who’s your partner?”
“Um, my friend. But I think she’s upstairs with some guy.” She only gave Max the briefest of glances while she spoke, her eyes otherwise staying on her plastic cup of Coors Light.
“Okay, cool. So we’re on after these guys are done.”
“Um, okay. Sure.” Her smile was dazzling.
“By the way, my name is Max.”
“I’m Linnea.”

Linnea lay on her stomach, watching Dog do nothing and the mouse squirm around the bottom of the terrarium. Max loved the way she bit her full lower lip when she was watching something, the way her long eyelashes curved up from her eyelids.
“You know it’s the way it’s gotta be,” Max said. Linnea grunted. Max laid his right hand on her wide, round ass. “I know it’s gonna be hard, but you have to do it.”
“I know I do, babe, but I’m scared!” Max began to gently massage her shoulders. She sighed contentedly. “Look, he’s finally eating it!” Dog had suddenly seized the mouse by the head and was shaking it violently. He bit down and then stopped moving.
“Is he just gonna sit there with the mouse in his mouth?” Max said.
“It looks like it. Stupid Dog.” She bit her cuticles and frowned. “You’re gonna have to drive fast.”
“You know I’m all over that,” Max said with a smile.

Max hit the gas and power-shifted into 3rd as he pulled out of the turn, tires squealing. The thunder of the engine and the smell of racing alcohol was intoxicating. He could see Damon’s lime-green rice burner in his rear view mirror, only a car-length behind. Now that he was on another straightaway he could press the advantage of his turbocharged V8. The brown Chevelle lurched as he slammed the clutch and shifted up. The Triptych, Demon Hunter’s latest album, was in the CD player. “The Flame That Guides Us Home” pounded from his stereo. This straight portion of 26 was only a couple of miles, but it was enough to put four more car-lengths between him and Damon.
That clown's going to learn that there is not, in fact, any replacement for displacement, Max thought.
The track shifted to “Not I,” and Max thought of Linnea as he took another turn, grunting the chorus along with Ryan Clark. She hated Demon Hunter and all of Max’s favorite heavy bands. Fortunately, she liked enough of Max’s other favorites – Shivaree, Flogging Molly, Del Castillo and Zeppelin – that the difference in musical tastes was acceptable. Oddly, she made an exception to her “no hard music” rule for Eluveitie.
Damon was almost hopelessly far behind when Max came to a screeching, swerving stop at the Mobile. Darryl and Linnea were sitting on the hood of Darryl’s dark green Jeep Cherokee. Max exited the Chevelle and received a warm, soft embrace from Linnea. Darryl punched him on the shoulder.
“Good job, son,” he said. Max patted the Chevelle’s hood and turned around as Damon’s Civic rolled to a stop beside him.
“Motherfucker,” Damon said. “Here’s your hundred.” He shoved five wrinkled twenties into Max’s open hand.
“Thanks,” Max said.
“Whatever. I know I can beat you, Goldman. And what’s more, I can kick your ass any time!” Damon pointed his finger at Max like a gun. Darryl stepped forward, a dangerous half-smile on his face.
“You plannin’ on backin’ that up, dip-shit?” Darryl grated.
“Fuck both of you,” Damon said. “Any time, okay?”
Max saw Darryl’s muscles tense and laid a hand on his shoulder. His calm gray eyes met Darryl’s wild blue ones and Max shook his head slightly.
“Go home, Damon,” Max said without a hint of anger. “And don’t offer merchandise you can’t deliver.” Damon muttered under his breath, flipped them off and got back into his Civic. Dust and gravel kicked up from the asphalt as he peeled out and sped back down Route 26.
“You did great, babe,” Linnea said, sliding her hands into Max’s pockets and pressing against his chest.
“Thanks. Let’s go get some food.”

Max began massaging Linnea’s lower back, his strong hands kneading and relaxing her tense muscles. She groaned approvingly. He began to work his way lower, moving over her buttocks. She started to squirm, and a moan escaped her lips as his hands slid between her thighs. Her eyes were pure heat as she rolled over and sat up, pulling Max’s mouth to hers. She began working on his belt, and then the two of them frantically helped each other undress. Linnea pushed Max onto his back, and bent her face to his pelvis. He hardened quickly, and she lifted her head and flashed her gorgeous white smile.
“I love you, babe,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“I love you too.” Max found it easier to say than he had thought. Linnea leaned over him as she lifted her hips. One of her big hard nipples filled his mouth as she slid down on him. His back arched as he thrust upward in sync. On shuffle, the iPod began playing “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

“Hey douche-bag, Tony said that you guys needed an extra hand over at the Hughes job.”
“Yeah,” Max replied into the phone. “Come over as soon as you can.”
“Roger,” Darryl said.
Darryl walked into the Hughes house, stepping over pieces of cut drywall. The sound of screw guns was almost drowned out by Styx’s “Blue Collar Man” blasting from Gary's battered boom box. Gary nodded to Darryl as he drove the last drywall screw into a massive piece of sheetrock on the ceiling. Darryl returned the nod with his characteristic Roman salute. He kicked the stepladder Max was standing on and grinned at him. “Nice kitchen you guys got here, huh?”
“Something like that,” Max said, wiping sheetrock dust onto his jeans. “Me and Gary are having a hard time getting these sixteen-footers onto the ceiling by ourselves.”
“Sweet. Let’s do it.”
At six they stopped working and left the Hughes job to go to Darryl’s apartment on Front Street. Beer and pizza emerged from the refrigerator and Freedom Fighters slid into the PlayStation2’s load tray. They took turns playing the single-player missions, Max beating “On Thin Ice” on his second try.
“I hate to say it, but you’re good,” Darryl said.
“I’ve beaten this game at least three times on the PC, which is better, by the way.”
“Uh-huh,” Darryl said. He finished his Miller High Life and opened another bottle.
“How do you know when you’re in love?” Max asked, popping the cap off a Saranac Pale Ale.
“Where’d that come from, kid?” Darryl raised one eyebrow.
“Just thinking about it.”
“You think you’re in love with Linnea?”
“I’m starting to feel that way.”
“I dunno, man.” Darryl scratched his balls reflectively. “I guess I’m in love with Shannon. You just know.”
“There’s gotta be some way to know for sure.” Max took a bite of his pizza and chewed slowly, tasting the generous measure of Frank’s Red Hot that was the only thing rescuing the day-old Nirchi’s slice from the abyss.
“Look, you’re the deep-thinking college boy. You tell me.”
“I don’t know if BCC really counts as college per se.”
Darryl snorted. “’Per se,’” he said in a nasal, lisping voice. “Stop using those gay-ass words.”
Max shook his head. “Like, I think I’d do anything for her, and I feel like I could live with her for the rest of my life. Does that count?”
“Sounds about right. Drink your goddamn beer!”

Max climaxed with a deep grunt, and Linnea’s moans rose to a high-pitched crescendo as she followed him, seconds later. Linnea collapsed beside Max, resting her head on his hard, hairy chest. They lay there silently, covered in a sheen of sweat, breathing heavily.
“Wow,” Max finally said.
“Yeah,” Linnea said. She smiled again.
“I mean, God. That was good.”
“Uh-huh.” Neither of them said anything else for a few minutes, “Bullwinkle Part II” by The Centurions the only sound. Linnea sighed and sat up. She picked up her 38F bra and slid the straps over her arms. Always self-conscious about her oversize breasts, Linnea had never actually known what her cup size was and just tried to squeeze them into the smallest bra possible. Max checked it using methods he learned on a website (deriving no small pleasure from the process) and found that she was wearing two cup sizes too small. A trip to Victoria’s Secret in the Oakdale Mall fixed that.
“Oh look, Dog finally ate the mouse – or at least the head.” Max sat up and looked. Dog had his eyes closed again, but the mouse’s body now lay decapitated in front of him. Max pulled his brown Maylene & The Sons of Disaster t-shirt over his head, then donned his boxer briefs and jeans. He squatted in front of the terrarium and poked at the glass.
“Good job, you little fucker,” Max said.
“So my dad’s coming home in half an hour,” Linnea said softly.
“I know.”
“You know he might get violent.”
“I mean, he’s never hit me or my mom and sisters, but Donny always has bruises after every argument with him.”
“I’m fairly confident that I can handle it.”
“I know you can. But please don’t hurt him.”
“I’ll try not to.”

After their first two dates (not including the quick, rough drunk sex in the upstairs bathroom of the Cresskill house) Linnea had Max over to her house to meet her mother and three younger siblings – Amanda, Megan and Donny. Her family took to him quickly – although he was laconic he had an indefinable magnetism. Linnea had never wanted Max to meet her father, but wouldn’t really explain why. He soon learned the reason about three weeks after meeting most of her family (and visiting several times in that period). After finishing a living room job in Endicott he had driven up to South Onondaga to pick Linnea up for the weekend. She was skipping her senior prom to be with him.
When he got to the house on Makyes Road, he saw a late-nineties white Ford Ranger parked in the driveway. Unless Donny had gotten a new car, he figured it must be Linnea’s mysterious father. The doorbell rang, and Max heard someone coming down the front stairs two at a time. Linnea burst out onto the porch and shut the door behind her.
“Oh my God, Max! My dad got home early from work.”
“That’s cool. Now I’ll get to meet him.”
“But that’s not okay!”
“Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”
“I’m sure,” Linnea snapped. She was starting to say something else when the door opened. Gil Turner nudged his daughter aside with his shoulder as he stepped out onto the porch.
“Who’s this?” he asked. His voice was calm, but something in the blankness of those green eyes was menacing.
“Daddy, this is Max Goldman. Max, this is my father Gil.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Turner,” Max said with a slightly forced grin.
“You too,” Gil said back, still blank. “Linnea, can I speak to you for a second?”
“Dad, we’re about to leave.”
“Just a second.”
“Okay, fine. Max, I’ll be right back.” Max saw her eyes moisten as she swallowed. She mouthed “I’m sorry,” as she followed her father back into the house. The door shut heavily and Gil began to yell. Max heard him call his daughter a filthy, lying whore. Gil tore her down viciously, telling her that if she lost some weight and wasn’t such a cow like her mother, maybe she could get a decent guy from Syracuse who wasn’t some bearded, money-grubbing Commie Jew. He wondered how she could think it was okay to throw herself at this guy, whoever the fuck he was anyway, when he forbade her to date any boy. Linnea’s replying screams were barely coherent. Max bit his thumb, hard, trying to control the temper that most people never saw. After being berated for a few minutes, Linnea began sobbing and Max heard her run back up the stairs. The door open and Gil stepped back outside. His face, while slightly flushed, was flat and expressionless again.
“Sorry, Max. Linnea said that she’s not feeling so well and doesn’t want to go out with you tonight. In fact, it would probably be better if you two didn’t see each other anymore.” Max matched Gil’s serenity and simply locked eyes with him. Gil’s calm mask broke into a scowl. “So go home. Now.” Without replying, Max turned and walked back to his car. As he started the engine, Gil spit on the porch and walked back into the house. Linnea’s tear-stained face was in the upstairs window. Max blew her a kiss and drove away.

Max wedged Dog’s terrarium between the passenger and back seat in his ’99 F150.
“That everything?” he asked Linnea as she stuffed a bulging gym bag into the bed-mounted toolbox.
“Yeah.” She wrinkled her forehead briefly. “Oh yeah, I forgot to get your iPod.”
“That’s fairly essential.”
Linnea jogged back into the house and up the stairs. Max watched her swaying hips with a smile. His smile faded when he heard the sound of a vehicle turning into the driveway. It was Gil’s Ranger. Gil got out of the truck, looked at Max and then at the F150 filled with his daughter’s belongings, and reached back into the cab. He shut the door and walked up to the porch, a short “tire thumper” bat in his left hand. “World’s Greatest Dad” was printed across his gray t-shirt in red letters. Evidently he did not see the irony.
“Do you have a hearing problem?” He brandished the bat menacingly and got in Max’s face. “I told you never to see my daughter again.”
“You did.”
“If you think you’re gonna just leave with my daughter–”
“Yeah, I have another thing coming, or some such cliché. It’d be best for everyone if you’d just go into the house and not think too much about any of this.” Gil’s face was now bright red.
“Goddamn it! I’ll break your fucking face!” He raised the bat again, but Max didn’t even blink. He glared steadily, his eyes glittering fiercely. He crossed his muscular arms over his wide chest and leaned against the porch rail. Gil puffed for a few seconds, waving the bat, but took a step back. Linnea thundered back down the stairs, the iPod and speakers in her hands, the pounding rhythm of The Union Underground blasting from the speakers. She froze as she took in the tableau of Gil and Max staring each other down. The song ended abruptly when she pulled the speaker cord out of the iPod. Gil looked at her, his face a mask of hate and fury. He stumbled back as Linnea shoved him aside with her shoulder, putting all of her one hundred and forty-five pounds into it.
“Don’t you brush past me like that, slut.” Gil pointed his finger stiffly at his daughter. She turned around and faced him, her nostrils flared. Her mouth opened and then shut. “Nothing to say, huh?” Gil snarled. “Of course not. You know who’s in charge here. Come back into the house right now.”
Linnea’s lip trembled, but Max put a hand on her shoulder. She looked at him, and he nodded. “Don’t you,” she began. Her father grinned as she paused, her voice catching. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that!” she blurted out in a quivering voice. “Don’t ever talk to me again!” Her father opened his mouth to retort, but nothing emerged. He turned around and walked back into the house.
“Shall we?” Max asked. Linnea didn’t answer, and they walked quickly to the pickup. Max revved the engine, popped the clutch and peeled out of the driveway, throwing gravel. Before they were even out of sight of the house Linnea broke and began to sob. As he whipped the truck dangerously onto Lake Road, she pressed her face against his shoulder and clutched his bicep. By the time he merged onto I-81 South, accelerating to ninety-five off the ramp, she had stopped crying. Her body still shook with the occasional silent sob. Max patted her knee. Wiping tears out of her eyes, she plugged the stereo’s auxiliary cable into the iPod. “South Texas Deathride” picked up where it had left off, Bryan Scott harshly screaming, “South Texas deathride you motherfuck” in the chorus.
“Why were you playing that when you came down the stairs?” Max asked. “You hate those guys.”
“I know,” Linnea said, her voice catching slightly. “But I know how much you like them, so I put it on.”
“Thanks, babe,” he said. Linnea picked at her cuticles.
“Are we gonna be okay?” she whimpered. Max gave her a quick, intense glance.
“I love you. Doesn’t that make it okay?”
“I think so, yeah.”

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Charlie Noodles is Good People

Virtue and the Grim Consequences Thereof is volume 4 in the excellent series The Goon, by Eric Powell. I've been a Goon fan since I discovered the book about three years ago, and I've been slowly adding the trade paperbacks to my library since then.

Volume 4 is no exception to the usual Powell genius. It opens with the story of the Fighting Fish-Canners, a football squad headed up by Goon (of course) that brings new life and hope to the run-down, unnamed city that is the book's setting. There's actually some real drama and tragedy in this bittersweet story, but I won't ruin it for you.

Powell follows the football story with a retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol as only he can. Scrooge is played by the Zombie Priest, the Ghost of Christmas Past is Frankie, and Goon fills the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The tale is an affectionate send-up of the original, filled with his trademark casual violence and '40's noir slang.

The main story in the collection - the one that actually advances the plot - features the mad scientist Dr. Alloy going rogue yet again. It's a typical Goon story, filled with bizarre supernatural creatures, fighting robots and murderous children.

The last few pages are occupied by a short story written by Thomas Lennon. The story's title is "Jimmy Turtle and the Legendary Boxcar of Well Made Ladies Shoes" and stars Frankie with the eponymous Jimmy Turtle as costar. Lennon is more famous for playing Lt. Jim Dangle on "Reno 911." I didn't know he could also write, and great comedy at that. His prose perfectly captures the spirit, pacing and humor of The Goon. I found myself chuckling several times throughout the story, but my favorite quote is this gem: "The plan was to make nice with him by way of the pie, acquire the map, and then: rock to the head. The "make nice" part was plan A. Plan B started with the rock, and didn't involve making nice at all. In plan B, the pie would be consumed by us, in celebration of acquiring the map."

Virtue and the Grim Consequences Thereof is a great book, and if you aren't reading The Goon already, you should start pretty soon.

"Are you the prophet of the gilded bear in the checkered pants? He won the checkered pants in the tournament of chaos and hot-dog eating! They are a prize coveted by all!"
- Frankie, while rendered temporarily insane in another dimension

On a different topic, I'm currently at my sister's house, on the opposite side of Germany from where I live in Amberg (central Bavaria). I've finally gotten used to my new BMW 128i to the point where I can really push her, so this trip was made in record time. Googlemaps suggested 3 hours and 48 minutes for the 405-klick journey; I did it in 2 and a half. Maintaining a 140 mph average speed didn't do much for my gas mileage though.

Being with my sister's family brings to mind again the pros and cons of being a self-sufficient bachelor. She has four kids from 5 years to 6 months, who shall be referred to as White Billy, Red Billy, Brown-Eyed Billy and Little Billy. She has different pseudonyms for them on her fiber blog, but I prefer my own. I had to watch them this morning so she could drive to the airport to pick up a friend. Between my 8 o'clock wake-up and her return just after noon, I had to change diapers for the two younger kids twice each. I made breakfast and lunch, broke up fights between the three ambulatory children, and dried Brown-Eyed Billy's tears, which would flow any time I gently told her not to engage in whatever dangerous pastime she came up with.

Even so, taking care of children that you love and love you back has it's own kind of fulfillment that makes the headaches worth it. And when else do I get the chance to play catch with five different random balls, play cowboys vs. indians vs. dinosaurs vs. airplanes with a 5 and 3 yearold?

That's me holding Little Billy after his bath. One of these days I'll have to have some of my own.