Saturday, June 29, 2013

Where You're on the Menu

Across many years given over to storytelling in as many genres, QUIRK is the closest I've come to establishing a concrete and specific worldview. In the world of Quirk, the Universe is not just a dangerous place; it is a self-aware environment narrowly and specifically focussed upon the destruction of the four friends who call the spaceship Frigid their home, in which nothing and no one can be trusted and even best buddies are ultimately incapable of completely knowing one another or sharing mutually beneficial goals. 

As far back as the very first QUIRK story, individualism and innocence exist only as a target for corrupt authority, and naiveté will get you killed. In “Island in the Sky,” (1980), a sinister religious cult captures a species of space whales, tortures and torments them for no known reason, until they are reduced to mindless killing machines lying dormant in space, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Naturally, Quirk and his friends stumble upon one of these beasts and manage — literally — to light a fire on its back.

In story #2, “The Humor Agency,” Quirk, Smith and Sludge are brainwashed by the same authoritarian regime and forced to infiltrate and investigate a Secret Society devoted simply to Taking Nothing Seriously: only to find that even Irreverence has its rules and regulations, and if you don’t play the way the ones in charge want you to play, you will find yourself cast out from the outcasts.

In the soon-to-be-published Quirk paperback, “Knight’s Gambit” carries the theme further, as the accepted modes of entertainment and escapism take on a life-threatening aspect, and Old Enemies lay in wait wherever you go, anxious to challenge you with a fight to the death.

Here in Quirk’s cosmos, nothing is safe, ever: as shown in “A-Muck Time,” (ostensibly a parody of both Star Trek and Superman), even your best friends can turn on you and literally have you for lunch. In Quirk, everything beyond The Self is carnivorous. 

Although I didn’t know it until recently, the worldview of QUIRK mirrors that of Aspergers Syndrome: unable to comprehend the things that normal people take for granted, the Aspergers person lives in a world that seems stacked against them. The simplest things can be a source of deep anxiety. Because the Asperger’s child does not understand the language or the underlying codes and rules that everyone else knows by instinct, he or she has no hope of ever “fitting in” to that World They Never Made — and in the end, many of us lose all desire and interest of doing so. The Quirks of the world have one slogan for all situations: “Fwoink you.”

Welcome to The Quirkiverse. It is a living thing, and it will eat you if you don’t watch out. 

Have a Nice Day.

— Freder.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Under the Weather

After some difficulties with software that resulted in the loss of several panels of artwork, and more difficulties with stylus tools that kept dying on me, things are back up and running and the Quirk paperback is back on track! I'm hoping to complete work on it this week -- at long, LONG last!

-- Freder.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Run Away with the Circus!!

Duck Soup Productions now has a Sister Blog! This one is devoted specifically to the creation of my Tarot-Deck-in-Progress, and will feature not just preview images of the cards, but also brief text about my thinking behind each design and links to outside sources of Interesting Information. Although it will no doubt be tweaked six ways till Sunday as I go along, the first two entries are up. To add a little Circus Magic to your life, click here:

And many thanks as always to the people who visit this blog. It -- and you! -- have been lifesavers.

-- Freder

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Great Pursuit

Tom Sharpe died the week before last. I suppose that there are some out there who are just as happy to see the back of him. His work was emphatically not for every taste, and I’m certain that he ruffled a few feathers back in the day. 

For me, it’s another one of those sad milestones. The ground slipping away under my feet. It’s not as severe a blow as when we lost Roberston Davies or Kurt Vonnegut — both of those men were still working at the time of their deaths, and had not faltered in their craft — but it’s a stinging blow nonetheless.

Years ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs about Sharpe as part of an article for The Cortland Review. Here’s what I had to say way back then:

Caustic humor is a long and noble British tradition. What sets Tom Sharpe ahead of the pack is not the depth of his perversion (which is deep enough) or the sheer volume of comic mayhem that he can squeeze into two hundred pages, but that he can make you laugh out loud at the most appalling things, and keep you coming back for more. 
Part of his secret is that the stories are laced with Awful Truth. It’s hard to conceive that a writer who uses penis mutilation as a recurring motif and whose characters habitually cavort in rubber rooms and sex-toy factories might have something important to say. Sharpe is driven by a deep-seated anger at the system, and it’s the anger that powers the black extremes of his humor.

The other part of his secret is harder to express in a short recommendation: because, yes, the books are charming in a sick adult sort of way, and this charm of style seldom fails even when Sharpe is describing (in his South African series Indecent Exposure and Riotous Assembly) the efforts of white Afrikaners to eliminate black Africans by raping black women, or (in The Throwback) the efforts of a young man to hang onto his inheritance by having his dead grandfather stuffed and wired for sound. Look, I don’t expect you to believe me: read the books and find out for yourselves. Reading Tom Sharpe is a test of character — try him and see if you pass.

Although I didn’t know it then, Sharpe was already past his prime. He had fallen into what became nearly a fifteen-year-long stretch of literary silence, and by the time he returned (with The Midden in 1996), it was pretty well obvious that something was missing. 

The man wasn’t angry anymore. He had mellowed with age, or something; bereft of the anger, his books seemed just to go through the motions. They weren’t bad by any means… but there isn’t a single one of his later books that you would shove under a person’s nose and say to them, “You have got to read this!

In that regard, I came to regard Sharpe as one of my own personal literary successes. With, as I now see, Asperger’s crippling my social skills, Sharpe became one of those subjects that I could talk about, that I could evangelize, and he was one of those occasions where my friends listened. I’ve created some converts to Sharpe in my time. Well — it was almost inevitable: put The Throwback into someone’s hands and it will produce a reaction. 

My favorite among his novels is still, and I guess always will be, The Great Pursuit. Far less extreme than some of his other books (and consequently less laugh-out-loud funny), this was the Moment in Time where I became convinced that Sharpe was a Major Novelist who cloaked his depths in dirty jokes. It was the novel in which Sharpe turned his anger specifically on the publishing industry, sparing no one: not the illiterate businessmen who publish the books, not the agents who cynically package the product, not the writers with, alternately, their lofty goals and ideals on the one hand or pandering on the other; and certainly not the readers who consume the final product. The incestuous nature of the business is reflected when the novel comes around full circle with revelations that indicate guilt within even the most Platonic teachers of the craft. 

Frensic, the focal character of The Great Pursuit, is one of the great characters of English Literature: half Dickens, half Python, and all Sharpe, wrapped in smug-self-confidence concealing a wellspring of disappointment and disillusionment.

I came upon Sharpe at an age when I was still susceptible to literary bombshells: when the discovery of a writer who opened doors in my mind and did things that no one else could do was still capable of altering my DNA for life. Faulkner, Chandler, Davies, Alasdair Gray, Vonnegut and Sharpe… they all showed me things that no one else even attempted. They all ignited sparks inside my brain. 

Of them all, only Alasdair Gray is left, and he’s not working much anymore… by his own admission, he is “written out.” As was Sharpe, when Vintage Stuff proved that he was running out of things to be angry about. No candle can burn that brightly forever and ever, except in the best work that it leaves behind.

So addictive is Tom Sharpe’s “voice” that I attempted Sharpe-esque situations in some of my own writing, only to realize that I had none of the qualities to make it work and that my own voice would have to be found somewhere else.

But oh, how well and how happily I remember standing in that now-defunct Maine Mall bookstore and coming across Sharpe for the first time. Vintage was his American publisher then, and the books promised much. I remember picking up The Throwback, and Wilt, and The Wilt Alternative, studying each one, and thinking to myself: 

“These look wild. Do I dare?”

— Freder

Friday, June 14, 2013

Always Late to the Party

Based on what I’ve read online (so you know it has to be the truth, right?), the creator / executive producer of Warner’s Supernatural TV series had a tough time pitching and selling the thing. 

If only he’d consulted me. Because it was obvious to me from the very first episode that what we’re dealing with here — and the only way to pitch it — is “Route 66 with Monsters.”

Actually, Route 66 did have monsters a time or two and could be a pretty scary show. One early episode had Martin Milner (later of Adam-12) and George Maharis stumbling upon an isolated tank town where the Boss Guy had years earlier committed a brutal Hate Crime and was holding the entire citizenry to silence, even to the point of piling more murders onto the problem. EC Comics published a very similar story right around the same time. During the late fifties and early sixties, for all of its post-wartime prosperity, America kept some pretty dark secrets.

In the first season of Supernatural, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester uncover a nearly identical situation… except that the murderer is a possessed scarecrow and isn’t motivated by Racial Intolerance. 

Supernatural owes so much to Classic TV that it feels like Classic TV right out of the box. I blew through the entire first season in a little over two weeks, and am raring for more. Perfect? Not. But it has a good beat (you can dance to it), and the show runners display a lot more  intelligence and good instincts than most of their peers ever did — I’m thinking specifically of David “I’m Making it Up as I Go Along” Lynch and his Twin Peaks, of the talented but too-cocky Chris Carter and his X-Files and the not-so-very talented J.J. Abrams and his Lost — the latter of which held its audience in so much open contempt that I’m amazed it found people willing to be insulted week after week.

The Big Elephant in the room on all of these shows is what’s come to be known in the trade as “The Mythology.” There’s nothing wrong in principle with having a backstory that ties your series together as a whole, while allowing for standalone episodes. It’s the way that those Other Bozos implemented the mythology that brought destruction down upon their shows. The X-Files is a prime example — it became obvious pretty quickly that Carter had no specific plans for his backstory, and suffered from what comics artist John Byrne once called “Gee-Whiz-What-A-Good-Bit-ism.”

That is, if it was a Good Bit, Carter stuck it on whether or not it made any sense in the overall design. I can just hear him saying “We’ll fix it later.” The so-called mythology became so contrived, so convoluted, so bloated and was so incoherent that the entire show eventually collapsed under its weight. Left with no other alternatives, Carter had Mulder and Scully fall in love, and that made for some far creepier moments than anything the conspiracy claptrap could provide.

Lost was like that from the very first episode. Watching it that one time, I immediately thought, “Oh my God, it’s another Twin-X-Peaks-Files fiasco where they have NO plan, are making it up as they go along, don’t care if it makes a lick of sense, and aren’t interested in anything other than stringing viewers along.”

There’s an ugly old-fashioned term for shows like that. They’re cock-teasers.

Now, Supernatural does have a “mythology” — and the producers even call it that — but at its heart it is a simple story: Mom killed by Demon, Dad wants to Get Demon, grown-up sons get caught up in his Calling. I do get the feeling that they have a definite plan, that they are not making it up as they go along, and that, while keeping it interesting, they aren’t piling on complications just for the sake of making it more complicated.

So in the end, it’s not the Classic TV tropes that make Supernatural worthwhile (although that helps)… it’s that the producers actually have brains in their heads and appear to be using them.

This holds true even in the non-mythology episodes. These guys just seem to have good Story Instincts. When  a shape-shifter appears as the monster of the week, they make it personal, not just by having the shape-shifter take on the form of one of the leads (we saw that coming), but by making sure that the shape-shifter — which we never see in its true form — absorbs some of the thoughts and feelings of its “mark.” This allows Dean Winchester to say some things that he would not otherwise say, and dredge up some resentments that would otherwise stay buried.

That, my friends, is how you write a TV show.

Going in to this series, I had some reservations about the content. We live in an age where very few televisual holds are barred after all, and I was afraid that the series would be too gory and intense for me. My tastes in Horror are pretty classical (read: Universal Monsters) — modern tropes of hack and slash, blood and gore, “shock” horror and torture porn are Not Acceptable to me. Here, Supernatural walks a tightrope line, sometimes stepping over but most often keeping just within the boundaries of taste. Most often, it’s the consequences of that violence that are shown, not the violence itself… and that’s a reasonable, tried-and-true way of handling some fairly touchy material. Give us just enough to sell the story, and nothing more. Supernatural mostly accomplishes this in its first season.

Meanwhile, the producers of Supernatural should get down on their knees and thank heavens for their lead actors, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki as Dean and Sam. They bring everything to the table that this kind of show needs in order to work. First and probably most important, they have the ability to speak the most ridiculous lines describing the most unbelievable circumstances, not just with a straight face but in a way that makes it all believable. Second, they work very well together. Third, they have all the qualities to make the women in the audience swoon, but are so likable and cool that they don’t put off the male audience. Finally, they just have that “Classic Television” vibe going on. Although they are young, they do not seem to be bound to any specific generation. Tooling around in their bad-ass Impala, all leather jackets and black jeans, the Winchesters would be just as much at home in the ‘fifties as they are in the twenty-tweens. Even in the not-so-classic rock that blares from the Impala speakers (on cassettes no less), there is nothing in them to alienate an Olde Farte like me. 

So — for now, at least, I’m on board. Always late to the party, I’ll begin the second season sometime this week. No matter how you cut it up, Supernatural has logged eight seasons as I write this and has been picked up for a ninth. That’s a huge success in TV terms: had the exact same show aired during the Light Dark Ages when the airwaves were ruled by just three networks and niche marketing was just a glimmer in Madison Avenue’s eye, we’d have been lucky to get three seasons out of the thing. 

You’d think that they’d be just about out of monsters by now…

— Freder

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Then and Now

I've mentioned before that a) QUIRK is coming to trade paperback later this month, and b) that the entire first two-thirds of the lead story is being rewritten and redrawn for this edition. I'm now in a position where I can offer a side-by-side comparison of the original story (created all the way back in 1982) with the new version of 2011. If nothing else, this will make it obvious WHY the old story had to be remade!

First off, the splash panel to the story. The top image is the 1982 version, the bottom image is the new "remastered" version:

Next up, from page six of the original story and page 3 of the new version (yes, that's how much I've tightened the story up), is the arrival of the Frigid at the Gamestation Rysk, where the main part of the story is set:

Work is progressing much too slowly to suit me -- these are the only two completed panels that I have to show you. But a lot of ground work has been laid, and things are going to start happening soon. The book will be in the same format as Tinsel*Town. As the publication date gets nearer, Quirk and the gang will get their own dedicated page here. Lots of fun and surprises coming, so stay tuned!

-- Freder.

Monday, June 3, 2013

As I Sat Sadly By Her Side

I was going to title this one “Ready for my Mood Swing Now,” but this morning a marvelous, mournful tune by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is playing inside my head, so it seemed appropriate that I follow the lead of my subconscious and just “Cave” in. Sorry.

I learned about Cave and his group from a casual co-worker friend back in my Thorndike Press days. I suspect that she wanted to be something more than just a casual co-worker friend; she gave me music, which years after the fact I think must be a dead giveaway. But I had already decided that I’d taken enough Punishment on the wartime front of Romance to last the rest of my life, and that went double for women that I worked alongside.

Which effectively rules the whole thing Right Out — I’m so socially maladjusted that the only place I meet women is at work. Asperger’s.

If you like your music Deep and Dark and Ballsy, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a great discovery, by the way. Every time I listen to them I mentally thank that woman, wonder where she’s at and wish her well —  a lot better than how I think of some of the women I’ve actually been involved with. Thank goodness it isn’t a terribly long list.


[Insert Heavy Sigh here]

May was a tough month. On the second, my Mother’s birthday, I woke in a deep, syrupy depression the likes of which — thanks to drugs — I had not felt in some time. It never really went away. Still hasn’t. I guess more than anything else what I’m feeling is the weight of Time. Three years now since she died, we’re all three years older, and what is there to show for that? To say that “I’m still here” seems like a shallow victory at best. Sometimes I look back on the family that we used to have, and imagine that for all of its being repressed and constrained and deep-down cracked and broken in its bones as it was, it was still a family and it was all we had… all I had at any rate. Dad and my sister managed to move on fairly early. 

Dad is now in his late eighties, and although he is doing a very danged lot better than about a bazillion other men his age, it is starting to show. In the last year he’s developed that Old-Man walk… the walk of someone trying to keep steady. 

Things are better now between us than they have ever been, really. There’s been some deep-sea shifting on both of our parts. He still has nearly all the behaviours that drive me crazy, but I’m getting a lot better at managing my feelings about it. Like — about a week and a half ago he showed up unannounced at my back door at 10:45 in the morning. I had just gotten up, had just finished feeding the quats, was still in my jammies, had not even taken my morning meds or had my morning coffee. 

Even a year ago, this would have infuriated me. Actually, it still did — but I was able to, so to speak, take myself aside and give myself a good talking-to. Eaaaasy, baby! said Ben Vereen to John Rubenstein in the original Broadway production of Pippin (the last stage work of Bob Fosse — I saw it just a week after Irene Ryan [Granny to both The Beverly Hillbillies and the title character of Pippin] died suddenly and was replaced by her understudy… the show must go on, after all). And that’s what I said to myself. I made Dad breakfast and we sat down and had a really nice impromptu visit. In my jammies.

The man that I knew as a child would never have been there for me in these past three years the way that he has been. He was never there for any of us, least of all Mom, in those days. It’s taken me a while to make the mental adjustment, but I’m working on it.

Somehow during the month of May, despite the depression and despite bouts of extreme laziness and despite taking time away to do some freelance work to pay a bill or two, I managed to finish the first draft of my next novel. The pride of that was short-lived: all I have to do is remember that no one will read it because as history shows, “If I Build It No One Will Give a Shit.” And why should they? Although conceived as a commercial work, my first attempt at what’s recognizably a genre novel, the fact is that I’m writing it… and so of course I’ve done everything in my power to subvert the genre and turn it into a completely insane, whacked-out freak fest from beyond the Lunatic Fringe that will likely just put most people Right Off. 

Hey, it’s what I do. The evidence is all around you.

Given the way that the month of May shaped up, I guess it’s no wonder that I actually jumped off the wagon a couple of times and murdered a couple of bottles of perfectly good vodka. Okay, maybe it wasn’t perfectly good. My thinking, both times, was that “There’s no reason at this point why I shouldn’t be able to drink like a normal person.”

Hah! There may not be any reason, but the fact is that I can’t. Once I start, I can’t stop until the bottle is dry — however long that takes. Both experiences were So Completely Negative that they were actually Positive… because I was given the evidence, which apparently I needed, not just that I can’t do that anymore, but really, really deep down, I don’t want to, no matter what that teeny little Red Guy standing on my left shoulder might be whispering in my ear. It’s not just that it comes at too high a price: it’s all those hours, days, lost in the realization that I’m so not having a good time.

The hours I spent in May just Thinking Too Much also had my situation with Asperger’s very much to the front. May was a month of Looking Backward; knowing what I do now, I can see how obvious it would have been had the diagnosis existed when I was a boy. My parents knew something was wrong, my more sensitive teachers knew something was wrong, and I sure as hell knew something was wrong — but the word did not exist to describe what it was.  

Last year I finally found the word that Explained Everything… and now the AMA, in their infinite wisdom, is taking it away from me. 

You may have heard about it. In the new edition of their Big-Ass Book, the Boneheads in the Brain Business have vaporized Asperger’s as a valid diagnosis and just lumped it all up with the rest of the Autism Spectrum. 

It makes me want to hit somebody. Never mind the people like me, it’s really not fair to the severely autistic patient to have their condition minimized by being merged with far more functional types who suffer from Asperger’s. It takes a diagnosis that was elegant in its specificity… and makes the whole thing muddier than a country road in the spring. Thanks a lot, you “geniuses” of the Inner Clockworks. Go fuck yourselves.

It occurs to me that what I should have typed in the last ‘graph was “muddier than this post.” I haven’t gone off like this is quite a while. Hope it’s at least entertaining.

About the only thing I can do to tie it all up in a neat and pretty bow is to put on the title track by Mr. Cave and marvel at its painful beauty. Listen:

"When will you ever learn
That what happens there beyond the glass
Is simply none of your concern?
God has given you but one heart
You are not a home for the hearts of your brothers

And God does not care for your benevolence
Anymore than he cares for the lack of it in others
Nor does he care for you to sit
At windows in judgement of the world He created
While sorrows pile up around you
Ugly, useless and over-inflated" 

Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Amy. This was the month of May.

— Freder.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...