Monday, February 24, 2014

Looking for Positives

Back in the early eighties, when killing off characters was starting to become the tried-and-true comics-industry Standard Method of Boosting Sales, comics satirist Fred Hembeck poked fun at the trend with a fake cover showing nearly all the Marvel Heroes laid out at the foot of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, with the caption “DEATH! DEATH! AND MORE DEATH!”

That’s kind of how I feel about the month of February, and I know my friend Howard would get a giggle out of that if he wasn’t… you know… stone dead. 

February has been like … bad comic book writers run amok. Kind of like DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in Micronaut form. Somewhere out there in the cosmos there’s an Earth-One Howard still out there, still giving them hell, maybe in a slightly different costume that evokes that of our Earth-Two Howard. 

By the way, his Super-Hero name is “The Mangler.” And he would have some elaborate story of how the Earth-Two Mangler was brought down by an army of genetically-enhanced Cherry Poptart clones. Or Space Knights. Take your pick.

The Big! Shocking! Death! events have definitely overshadowed everything else this month, including the fact that somehow, in spite of the Great Cosmic Funnybook Editor going all-out to increase his sales, I have managed to make a few things happen in the Counter-Counter-Counter-Earth Realm of Duck Soup Land.

Thanks entirely to making a daily schedule and sticking to it, I’ve managed to design three or four cards a week for my Tarot of the Zircus M├Ągi; to the extent that what amounts to the equivalent of an entire suit has been completed. Some, but not all, of these designs have been revealed at the Circus Tarot site. Early in the month, The Circus Tarot Book, complimenting the limited Majors edition of the deck, was published to Great Acclaim from Me, Myself and I (all three stooges rolled into one) and is now available through all the usual outlets, including your friendly neighborhood Independent Bookseller (though you’ll likely need to ask for it)… 

Oh, yeah... my latest novel See Them Dance (a fantasy adventure from beyond the Lunatic Fringe) is still New News. And my novel for 2015, Baxter Bunny Escapes, proceeds at a pace. Just not as rapid a pace as I would like. Well, you can’t rush weirdness.

Normally I’d have been all over this site with banners and declarations and “Yeee! Whoopie! Hoop-la! Looka What I Done!” — but it’s just not as much fun to toot your own horn when the Great Cosmic Funnybook Editor (whom I secretly suspect to be Jim Shooter in Super-Villain drag) has been hard at it, and you suddenly have friends and family who will never be able to toot again.

At least not here on Earth-Two.

— Freder

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Remember You Must Die

For the second time this month, Mister Death has come along with his grin and his winter touch. This time he came for my nephew, driving home from work through a winter blizzard.

Only his girlfriend, who was at his side and survived with only minor injuries, can tell what happened… but I’ve never met her and now never will. He could not have had a whole lot of experience driving in hazardous conditions. I know the stretch of road that he was on; it’s bad even in the summer months, all hills and winding curves. So, who knows? Perhaps he was going too fast for the weather, perhaps he was startled when the DOT snowplow came out of the dark and snow, perhaps he over-reacted. Whatever the reason, he lost control of the car, crossed the center line and ran headlong into the plow.

In recent years I did not know him at all: his mother was declared dead by me three years ago when I moved into my new life. She bullied me and abused me all the time we were growing up. In later years when diabetes made our mother into an invalid she was Never There, offered nothing in the way of help and rarely even came around, even though she lived less than a mile down the road. After Mom’s death, she would not help me make the arrangements, but was interested only in taking things out of the house. When I barred her from doing that, she simply broke into the place, stole things, and sold them to some unscrupulous dealers for a fraction of their value. An alcoholic and drug addict herself, she used my own alcoholism against me in a variety of ways. This doesn’t even begin to get into the awful things that she did to her own family. She is a Toxic Person.

So when I finally got away, I was determined never to see her again. Her children were not specifically included in those feelings, but that’s just the way it worked out, and I can’t say that I lost any sleep over it.

Tony Jr. was a big guy — I mean BIG… enormous, a wall of flesh six feet tall and four feet wide. His legitimate dreams of being a creative person were sabotaged by an attitude of expectation that he inherited from his mother. He wrote a novel that was, I am led to believe, a pastiche of Eragon and other generic Middle Reader fantasies, and then, as far as I know, did nothing more.

(My own first novel was pretty much god-awful and absolutely unpublishable, just for the record. Most first novels are. I bullied on ahead and got better with time, but when Tony asked me for advice on the business of writing, I gave him the only advice I could justifiably give him, which was: Don’t do it. It’s a hard, tough business, and it’s getting worse. He was visibly angry at me for that.) 

For a while he had an interest in acting, and something might have come of that, but somehow and for reasons unknown to me he gave up trying. His real claim to fame is his appearance in the HBO movie Empire Falls, starring Paul Newman, Helen Hunt and a host of others. He actually had some dialogue; he played a friend of the school bully, and was the victim of a school shooting, taking a shot in the forehead (in close up). He told me that the stunt director shot the squib into his eye on the first take, and it hurt like crazy.

He met Paul Newman, who went out of his way to introduce himself and make my nephew at home on the set. The problem is, he had no idea who Paul Newman was. I can understand being young and all that, not having the chance to see some of Newman’s movies, but when you are working on a film, wouldn’t you go out of your way to learn who the stars are and what they have done before? I was kind of disgusted at him for that.

My annual penance for sins came once or twice a year at Christmas or Thanksgiving. That was the only time that my sister would have my mother and me over to dinner. Not having anything in common with the adults, I was syphoned off to play with the kids every time… usually video games. It got so that he could beat me all the time, which was fine, but listening to him gloat afterwards was a pain in the ass. I should have been more tolerant: after all, from what I understand, his father put the kid down so much and made him feel so inferior that any victory, however inconsequential, must have been a great thing for him. He was a cheery, enthusiastic little boy who had those qualities verbally beaten out of him by his father.

My favorite memory of Little Tony is from a time when he was quite little indeed. Once again, I was at his house for the annual holiday dinner, and The Wizard of Oz came on the television. He’d never seen it. I sat him down next to me on the couch and told him what a wonderful movie it was. As I say, he was quite little, and I started explaining to him what was going on in the picture. Just at the moment when Margaret Hamilton’s Elvira Gulch is being her absolute bitchiest, stuffing Toto into her basket, the explaining of this caused me to tear up a little bit. Tony looked at me and said, “Are you sure this is a good movie?”

And now I’m left tho think, not for the first time, What in hell is the point of it all? You work, you struggle, you dream… you try to do right. And then you’re cut down at the age of 24 on a dark back road in the middle of a desolate winter storm.

I told my Dad this past summer, and I’ve said it often down through the years: we’re all five minutes away from Death. You’re no more likely to die at the age of 87 than you are at the age of 24. Walk out of the house at the wrong time, and you’re dead. A minute earlier or later would have made the difference in surviving another day. What are the odds that my nephew would lose control of his car at the exact precise moment that a Maine DOT snowplow was right on top of him? 

Enjoy yourself while you can, boys and girls. Do Good Work while you can. Quit your jobs now and do what you want to do with your life, because it could all be over in five minutes. 

— Freder

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Howard the Human

This is all about my friend, Howard Downs.

That’s him, on the far left of the photo above, taken on the occasion of our mutual friend BC’s wedding in July of last year. 

All of us in that picture: Howard, Dave, Mike, BC, Lee, Tom, Walt and me… we all go way, way back together, nearly 35 years of friendship. These guys are the only brothers I ever had, and I thank goodness that I have them.

I don’t think that any of us could imagine that when this photo was taken, the last time we all got together, that it would actually be the last time we all got together.

Howard died yesterday, of long term health problems relating to diabetes and liver failure.

The last time I saw him was at the “Maine Comics Geeks Unite” outdoor show in September, where Dave and I and Howard’s wife Liz all had tables stocked with our wares. We practically owned the show! Howard was fresh out of his first stay in the hospital, but he dragged himself up from West Gardiner to come see us anyhow. He was clearly suffering; he looked to me as if his whole body pained him. Even so, we had a couple of laughs, and it was awfully good to see him get excited about meeting Mort Todd and picking up a print of his art… the little kid who loved comics never died in him.

We all met at my Comics Shop in Hallowell, Maine, way back in the late ‘70s… the first shop of its kind in the whole state. I was a lousy businessman and the shop didn’t last more than three years, but it was amazing, it still is amazing, that the friendships I made through that place have lasted ever since. 

Howard was the first, the original, the definite article. I don’t make friends easily, in part, I now realize, thanks to Asperger’s, but Howard took a liking to me and my shop and started hanging around a lot. And although the shop is where we first met, I wasn’t the reason that we all became friends. It was Howard. He was smart, outgoing, friendly and funny… especially funny. He had amazing ideas and insights that were fun to hear. He brought life and liveliness into any situation, every conversation.

Maybe a decade ago, one of us (I think it was BC) pointed out that whenever we got together, it was never long before we all started laughing. Howard was the engine of that; he had a great, infectious laugh that I can still hear, even now. It’s one thing I will never forget about him.

He was a clever, unconventionally creative guy who never found an outlet for his ideas. I know that troubled him. Although affable and outgoing, he was as insecure as anyone… and this led to problems between him and me.

Oftentimes, especially in his younger days, he needed to boost his own sense of self-worth, and would accomplish this by putting others down, quite hard, by verbally knocking their legs out from beneath them. He sometimes surrounded himself with inferior people (his “newsboy legion” as BC labelled them) just so that he could be the Alpha Dog of the pack. One fellow in particular was a regular… not in our circle of friends, but a hanger-on of Howard’s who seemed not to mind the abuse that Howard regularly served up and dumped on him.

And when there was no one else around for Howard to take down a peg or two, I was usually the one elected to receive the abuse (although there were a few exceptions; I recall one unpleasant incident at the now-defunct Graciano’s Restaurant where we all frequently met). He knew just where to strike and he knew how to make it hurt, and I did not roll with the punches. It hurt all the worse because I did think of him as a brother and I know he felt the same way about me. 

I dealt with it the way I dealt with everything in those days… by bottling it up and bottling it up and bottling it up until it couldn’t be contained any longer and finally burst out in an explosion of anger and hurt and resentment. Especially after I started drinking in my early forties, those explosions happened more frequently and with more violence. There was a time when I didn’t want to see Howard anymore.

I’m all the more glad now that we were able to put that aside in these last eight or ten years. It wasn’t easy. But we both finally realized that we meant too much to each other to let it go on.

In his twenties, a stint in the National Guard did him no good. Basic training was an assault in his sensibilities. Shortly after returning from that, he came out to spend a night as a guest with me in the Old House. He was not the same. At night, I could hear him from across the hall, yelling and crying out in his sleep. 

His direct, not to say blunt, not to say caustic methods of dealing with situations in life and at work did him no good.

His first marriage did him no good. He was fortunate later on to meet and marry Liz; who was very good for him indeed, very patient among other things, and with whom he had a lovely daughter who combines all of her parents’ best qualities.

The first time I was hospitalized for alcoholism it was not voluntary, and I essentially vanished off the face of the earth as far as my father and my friends were concerned. It was Howard who came up here, camped out on my doorstep, talked to the neighbors, found out what had happened, tracked me down (“like a bloodhound,” my Dad said), found me in the hospital and contacted everyone to tell them what had happened. When I relapsed almost immediately after that first stay, Howard was right here for me, trying as hard as he could to help, tracking down my hidden bottles of vodka and dumping them down the sink.

The whole time that he was doing that, he was battling his own alcohol problem. While I was drinking, I easily outdrank Howard at his worst; but I didn’t start until late, whereas Howard was a lifelong hard drinker.

We had other issues. His politics were crap. Maine’s egregious Governor LePage was his “hero” — but we never so much let politics come between us.

He was tough, scrappy, hard-nosed, irritating, caustic, funny, and the best friend that anyone could want.

When all of us got together, we never ran out of subjects and certainly never stopped talking about comics (our mutual friend Lee became a professional doing brilliant work for both Marvel and DC) … but it wasn’t comics that held us together. It was that laughter, that old laughter that began three and a half decades ago and never stopped. And that was all Howard.

I know we’ll all get together again in the coming weeks to remember Howard, and I know that we’ll all get together again after that, hopefully many times in the years ahead. But when we do, it will never be the same. A nuclear bomb has come down out of the skies, leaving a great big crater in the center of our brotherhood, leaving us shocked and sad and lonely, staring at a gaping hole that can never be filled. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

It's REPOSSESSION DAY! QUIRK graphic novel volume 2 is OUT!

In volume 2 of QUIRK, all hell breaks loose for our space-faring misfits, and everything they know is changed forever! Four complete stories fill this 62-page volume; that's well over a year's worth of story and strips from the original weekly webcomic!

In Termination Alley, Carpy and the Frigid are repossessed by their original owners! In Limbo! Quirk, Smith and Sludge are set adrift in deep space, trapped in a bubble of slime, while Carpy fights alone deep inside the HEADquarters of Lockhead Dynamics! In Down to Earth, Quirk and his pals run afoul of The Mad Artmeister of the Spaceways, The DALAI DADA! And in Planet of the Amazon Cowboys... well, you get the drift, but watch out for an original "twist" that will affect the entire future of our four (or is it three?) friends. 

62 pages in full color for $15.99 or less... y'can't go wrong! Available wherever books are sold, or direct from Duck Soup Productions. Now at AmazonAvailable Soon at Barnes & Noble.
Retailers: order from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, CreateSpace Direct, or from Duck Soup Productions.

New to Quirk? No sweat! Visit our growing Quirk mini site, where you'll find most everything you need to know about the series, including the trailer for volume 1.

But wait! The book news is not over! The Circus Tarot Book is coming in under two weeks. It's the direct supplement to our Tarot of the Zirkus Magi, and it's as loopy as you'd think. What's that, you haven't heard of Tarot of the Zirkus Magi? You been livin' under a rock or something? High yourself to the deck's mini-site vis this link.

Still not had enough? I published seven book titles and a deck of cards in 2013, and I am not stopping there! Lots more is coming in 2014, including two nonfiction titles (Bookman: The Life and Work of Louis G. Huntoon, a True American Primitive and Flickers and Other Diversions), a new fantasy novel (Baxter Bunny Escapes), our second children's book (Bear House), a third volume of Quirk, the complete 78-card version of Tarot of the Zirkus Magi.  Aiieeeee! Is there enough caffeine in the universe to make all this possible? Who knows? But it will be fun finding out...

-- Freder
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