Hereditary: How Guilt and Blame Create Hope

Six months into 2018 and we’ve been given one sucker-punch of a horror movie in Hereditary. To call it effective would be an understatement—it’s gross, it’s gruesome, it’s horrific, and it’s absolutely bleak. It’s a movie with no safety net. And it’s brilliant for it too, because it hides this bleakness right in the title. Hereditary. This is a movie born with a disease, one it cannot shake no matter how hard it tries. It’s fated to end the way it ends.

Except, maybe it isn’t. Fate is certainly its biggest theme, but there’s nothing satisfying about a pointless struggle. To be sure, there is a cruelness to the film that most horror movies lack, but I never got the impression it was outright nihilistic. Fate is a theme, but the film isn’t hopeless.

Hereditary shares two other big themes alongside fate: blame and guilt. It’s in these two equally negative emotions that the movie finds its hope and ultimately, the idea that maybe fate could have been bested had the characters not entered the film already broken.

Annie begins the movie feeling blamed. She doesn’t know from what exactly, only that she holds this defensive view of her family, like they’re out to get her. It’s a lens we spend half the film with until we later find out that the blame is actually guilt. Annie once tried to murder her children during a bout of sleepwalking. It’s something she claims was an accident and becomes defensive of. She didn’t mean to, so it’s not something she should be distrusted for.

The problem is, Hereditary is still a movie operating on fate. There are no accidents. Somewhere deep down, Annie wanted to kill her children, and she’s afraid she still wants to kill them. It eats at her.

It means the movie begins with the family already divided and everything we see divides them further. When Peter has a nightmare that he’s being strangled, he wakes up and blames his mother. Why wouldn’t he? She’s tried to kill him before.

Hereditary becomes a balancing act between what the characters do and what they know. Every action in its two-hour runtime has a sinister cloud hanging over it, as if the characters are all struggling to overcome their natural instincts. There is the fated choice to make, and then there is the right choice to make. They always find themselves making the fated choice because they don’t trust each other, but there’s always the option—the hope—not to.

For example, Annie knows her Peter is going to a high school party filled with drinking. He lies; she calls him on his lie. Yet she forces Charlie to go with him, Charlie who is allergic to peanuts, too young to be there, and more than likely possessed by Paemon.

They both know they’re making a mistake, yet they make that mistake anyways.

Charlie’s death was a crossroad for the family. It could have brought them together to grieve as a unit, or it could have divided them further. Ultimately it divides them further. Peter feels blamed for Charlie’s death, and he feels guilty too since he was driving the car. We as the audience know it wasn’t his fault though. We saw Paemon’s symbol on the light post.

Annie, meanwhile, blames Peter. She lashes out at him, and instead of trying to console her son, drifts even further away from her family. Answers are to be found not in communication with one another but to the dead. If Charlie’s ghost can tell her everything is alright, then no one will have to feel guilty about anything. She won’t have to blame Peter for her daughter’s death, and Peter won’t have to feel guilty.

It’s a destructive viewing because it removes introspection and personal growth. The characters have the option to make the right choices, to tackle the emotions they are feeling and grieve, but Annie isn’t willing to do that. Peter isn’t either. Upon Charlie’s death, he avoids the problem and goes to bed. Someone else can deal with it in the morning. After the funeral, he finds solace in solitude and drugs, spending a lot of the movie getting high with his friends.

Ultimately, this lack of dealing with problems is what puts Paemon into Peter.

Guilt is what propels Annie to try and fix the problem, but it’s something she attempts to do by herself. She goes to burn the book believing it will kill her. It doesn’t, and its destruction doesn’t stop Paemon either. All she manages to do is kill her husband—the one person trying to keep the family together—and causes herself to snap.

There’s an argument to be made that the climax of Hereditary is Annie’s final attempt at saving Peter. She still believes this is her fault and by killing her son, she’ll have saved him from being possessed. After all, it’s not the first time she’s tried to kill him. It’s more destruction and more division. It’s the easy way out, of not taking responsibility for what she had done.

It’s what fate wanted.

At the end of the movie, Peter is possessed. He looks at his new congregation as Paemon, and between confusion he seems to look relieved. Killing Charlie was his fault, but this, this was not. He cannot feel guilt for this. He cannot be blamed for this.

Hereditary is a movie filled with loss and grief, yet it’s also a movie where no one apologizes. Characters make mistakes that result in death and emotional trauma, and no one apologizes. Everyone feels guilty and everyone feels blame, but those emotions are only allowed to stew into something destructive, not be released in catharsis. Grief is buried into more grief, and fingers are pointed to avoid taking responsibility.

Had someone just said, “I’m sorry,” the end results of this movie could have been avoided, and that’s where the hope lies. I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it, because that little act would have allowed the family to admit responsibility for their mistakes, grieve as a unit, and then do something about it.

Advertisements

Top-5 Movies of 2017

Note: This was originally written and posted on wethenerdy.com

The top-ten season continues, this week with movies. 2017 has been an interesting year for film, mostly in that I frontloaded the amount of movies I saw and didn’t like most of them. The ones I did like, I feel like didn’t like enough? Or that’s the impression I’ve been given. The Internet has a strange way of skewing perspective with discourse, hype, and general trolling, and I don’t think I moderated that enough this year.

The negative feedback cycle that was 2017 is perhaps its own conversation though.

As to this conversation, I’ve decided to frame it as a top-five affair instead of a top-ten. The reason for that is simple: The bottom half of my top-ten is boring. It’s all the big Marvel and action movies that we’ve all spent hours talking about already. More intelligent people than myself have explained why Wonder Woman is loads of fun and worthy of all the praise it received, and no one is going to miss another paragraph praising Star Wars: The Last Jedi, though I’m still tempted to write one.

And if I’m being really honest, my top-five makes me feel a bit more intelligent. I’m an insecure man at heart. I love vapid action movies and stupid fantasy novels and bad things with the best of them, but I feel guilty about it, like I shouldn’t.

It’s stupid, but hang-ups are hang-ups. I can admit I have them, which is probably a step in the right direction. Perhaps I’ll worry about the alcoholism next year when I feel the need to be introspective again.

So with all this nonsense out of the way, here are my top-five movies of 2017!

5: John Wick Chapter 2

Okay, so I know this is funny coming off that insecure paragraph, but damnit, John Wick: Chapter 2 is more than just a shooty-shooty, bang-bang action flick. Yeah a lot of people get shot and die, but the characterization and storytelling on display while that happens is really impressive.

We learn more about John Wick when he’s killing than when he’s talking.

He’s such a compelling character in these subtle ways that involve gunshots, stabs, and crashing cars. It’s a wonderful dichotomy that then gets continued on to the other assassins that live in this huge world. Talking leads to lies; fighting leads to truth. It’s a storytelling device I wish more action movies would use, because it absolutely fits the genre.

Pair that with some of the best action sequences I’ve seen all year and an amazing amount of world building, and you have one of the best action movies in a long time—certainly one of the best of 2017.

4: IT

The IT film had a lot to live up to, because the novel is one of my favorites. It’s Stephen King at his best character writing, and it’s Stephen King at his best horror. IT lives up to the novel in all the ways it needs to while sacrificing little (what it does sacrifice I’ll forgive. The book is like 1200 pages long).

The Losers Club depicted on screen is perfect. Perfect. The casting, the acting, and the rapport is straight out of the book, with plenty of heart, horror, and humor. I cannot believe how well and believable everyone is. Meanwhile, Pennywise is perfect too. Bill Skarsgård nailed the otherworldly aspect to him, where he’s just a little funny and a lot dangerous. I knew how this would ultimately end, yet Pennywise always unnerved and surprised me.

I will admit to being more giddy than scared throughout the whole thing though, but given how much the book plays on old, schlocky horror, I honestly call that a plus. The movie is fun in the way a good horror movie should be.

3: Underworld: Blood Wars

Okay, so this really comes off as funny given that insecure paragraph above, but damnit…okay Underworld: Blood Wars is kind of a bad movie. I reviewed it for the site and gave it a 7, but that was being very generous. There are a ton of flaws with this one, especially a twenty minutes segment in the middle which is just dumb even by Underworld standards.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t care.

Underworld holds a very special place in my heart. It reminds me of being in high school in one of the few ways that doesn’t make me cringe in pain or embarrassment. It reminds me of staying up late and drinking 40oz Mountain Dews and playing World of Warcraft. It reminds me of hanging out with my best friend when the biggest worry I had was the homework I didn’t feel like doing. It reminds me o

f being a kid and enjoying bombastic bloodshed via B-movie monsters.

It reminds me of fun.

To the movie’s credit, it is fun. Selene is back and as badass as ever, and the last half hour gives one of the better action scenes in the entire series. It’s big and cool and if you don’t think about it, pretty awesome.

I also think it has some of the best sound design of 2017. Say what you will about the writing, but the audio technicians earned their pay this go around. The cuts sound gnarly, the gunshots sound massive, and the explosions are ground-shaking.

The day I don’t get excited about an Underworld movie is the day I’ve become a boring adult. I avoided that this year, and that’s why this is in my top five.

2: Get Out

Get Out is one of those movies that has thousands of pages of text already written about its importance, relevance, and exceptional storytelling, so me adding to that isn’t really doing much. I do want to say that it’s the most tense movie I’ve seen since The Green Room, walking the line between suspense, horror, and humor with expert footsteps.

It’s absolutely engrossing is what it is.

The rest of my praise is everything you’ve heard before: It’s smart, it’s important, the premise is exceptional, the twists are out of left field yet believable, the cinematography is great, the acting is great, etc, etc, etc.

Go see this one.

1: mother!

mother! is the most jaw-dropping, fucked up experience I’ve ever had at a movie theater. I went in knowing nothing save who was directing it, and I came out feeling like I had been through something akin to an alien abduction. I was affected but in a way that was hard to explain.

Primal dread and exhilaration don’t really mix, you know?

Everything about mother! is unnerving, from the first shot to the last. The way the camera follows Mother around in this close, claustrophobic way means you only get her perspective but in a way that’s too close for comfort. She’s the only person that acts like a real person in the entire movie, yet there’s still something off about her too. You can tell she’s otherworldly because she’s not insane.

You want to pull back to breathe, and you can’t. The movie won’t let you.

I could spend pages talking about the point to mother!, but there are so many ways to read the movie that I’d more than likely be wrong. I saw the relationship between author and creation first and a damning accusation of humanity and religion second, but what do I know? Both might be wrong!

That we can have that conversation is why I like this movie, though.

mother! is a wild ride, the kind of rollercoaster that only ever goes down. It’s clever and smart and wonderfully scary in ways that most horror movies never think to be. It is the best film I watched this year, and my favorite too.

Top-10 Comics of 2017

Note: This was originally written/posted on wethenerdy.com

2017 has been one of those years that’s best described with words like “shitburger” or “awful” or “suicide pact? Suicide pact!” However, the good folks at Image, DC, IDW, Dark Horse, and Oni have made it bearable by releasing some of the best comic books I’ve ever read. I’m here with a list of ten, but man, ten is a really small sample of what this year had to offer.

I mean good God we got three Donnie Cates books. Three!

Now, similar to 2016, I’m approaching this list with two rules. The first is that I will not be repeating books from the last two years, so no Glitterbomb, Black Monday Murders, Black Hammer, or Wayward. Sorry guys, but I mean, at this point I’d just be repeating myself over and over again, and that’s not fun.

The second rule is that an issue needs to have either finished its arc or have four issues to its name. This is to make sure what I’m recommending has enough of a track record to recommend it. We’ll save Kid Lobotomy for next year, then.

Godspeed, and happy reading!

10: Extremity

Written By: Daniel Warren Johnson

Art By: Daniel Warren Johnson & Mike Spicer

Published By: Image

Extremity is this awesome sleeper hit in that it’s a big dystopian YA thing, and I almost always hate those, but then Danial Warren came in and said, “Now hold on there, sport. What if the writing was good, the world building was better, and the art style was this gritty, steampunk showcase with lots of dragons crossed with giant insects?” I mean yeah, you do those things and you’ll probably make my top ten. Fancy that.

9: Kill or Be Killed

Written by: Ed Brubaker

Art by: Sean Phillips

Publisher: Image

Kill or Be Killed is the kind of book that creates an unreliable narrator, makes him reliable, and then makes him very unreliable just when you think you can trust him. Dylan is an absolute mess, and I adore him. He uses philosophy 101 to justify murder because he’s a stupid college kid in way over his head who sees stuff that isn’t there. Also drugs! Also the Russian mob! Combine that with an amazing voice, tone, and art style that utilizes dark colors in an exceptional way and bam, here we are. This is a crime-noir story like no other.

8: Rat Queens

Written by: Kurtis J. Wiebe

Art by: Owen Gieni

Publisher: Image

It’s funny. I don’t smoke weed, steal stuff, or go on adventures, but I feel like Betty is my spirit animal—like I should have a WWBD rubber bracelet the color of psilocybin mushrooms. Rat Queens is an exceptional combination of Dungeons and Dragons with crass, over-the-top humor. It’s tons of fantasy tropes you know and love but with a wicked sense of comedic timing, a hint of satire, and some wonderful character work and world building. We’re all here to have a laugh, but we’re given an excellent story on top of that. That and Kurtis’s ability to swear turns “fuck” into high art. Oh, and Owen’s artwork is really, really awesome. Goddamn.

7: The Wild Storm

Written by: Warren Ellis

Art by: Jon Davis-Hunt & Steve Buccellato

Publisher: DC

The Wild Storm is one of those books where I don’t always know what’s going on, but I’m genuinely not unhappy about that because it’s just so stupid pretty. The visual storytelling on display is something fierce, and Jon Davis-Hunt and Steve Buccellato’s ability to craft movement is some of the best I’ve seen this year. Everything is just fluid! Mix that with exceptional world building and characters that feel very real because the little details are everywhere, and you have yourself one hellova cool scifi story.

6: Mr. Miracle

Written by: Tom King

Art by: Mitch Gerards

Published by: DC

Speaking of don’t always know what’s going on with fantastic visual storytelling, Mr. Miracle is really, really good, isn’t it? I love how this book can mesh the insane with the mundane, and I love the artwork—even if it is nothing but nine-panel grids. Every twist and turn feels unexpected because Mr. Miracle is Mr. Miracle, and I love the dark sense of humor because Mr. Miracle is Mr. Miracle. Darkseid is, everyone.

5: Snotgirl

Written by: Bryan Lee O’Malley

Art by: Leslie Hung & Rachel Cohen

Published by: Image

The theme of 2017 might be surreal and strange, because Snotgirl is absolutely that. It’s a controlled surreal and strange though, one where people act consistently. They just don’t act like real people. It makes for a fascinating experience, especially since Lottie and company are absolute train wrecks. Bryan Lee O’Malley has crafted some of the most compelling and least likable characters I’ve seen since Joffrey Baratheon. And Snotgirl gets some major bonus points for having the best lettering I’ve seen this year. If you want a wild story about the Internet, surrealism, and fashion, you should pick this up.

4: Royal City

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Jeff Lemire

Publisher: Image

It’s a Jeff Lemire book. Of course it’s fucking exceptional.

3: Underwinter

Written by: Ray Fawkes

Art by: Ray Fawkes

Published by: Image

Underwinter is the best thing to happen to Lovecraftian horror since Stephen King’s Revival, and it’s easily the best I’ve ever seen Lovecraft’s brand of insanity handled. The way Ray Fawkes paints the eldritch is inspired, the kind of thing that cements comic books as an important medium telling important stories. The fragility of both the human psyche and reality itself is on full display here, done up in Raw Fawkes brilliant artstyle. There isn’t a page that isn’t unsettling in one way or another; there isn’t a page that isn’t beautiful.

2: A.D. After Death

Written by: Scott Snyder

Art by: Jeff Lemire

Publisher: Image

A.D. After Death is Neil Gaiman levels of writing. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s gorgeous. It’s fantastic. The book combines comic books with prose in a way that feels so damn fluid and engaging, like you’re not reading anything at all but experiencing. The story is a weave of immortality and theft, of forgetting and remembering, of coming to terms with your own character flaws while you watch the world stumble along its path around the sun. The character work is phenomenal, the artwork is phenomenal, and the payoff transcends it all into an absolute work of literature.

1: God Country

Written by: Donnie Cates

Art by: Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie & Dee Cunniffe

Publisher: Image

God Country is an inspired work of art, a fantasy story with a talking sword that’s not about the fantasy or the sword. No, it’s about Alzheimer’s and loss; it’s about family and people. It’s crushing in its brutality and inspiring in its handling of people and emotions. It’s one of those kinds of stories I know is fiction, yet it’s played in such a way that I could believe it happening. Somewhere in Texas, long ago, a talking sword really did come to Earth and caused a ruckus that only four people experienced. It’s easily the best writing I’ve read in 2017.

The Dark Elf Trilogy: 14 Years Later

Note: This was originally posted on wethenerdy.com

I have to wonder if the only universal part of adulthood is wondering when you’ve become an actual adult. Perhaps the mark is less having a 401K or excitement at buying a new vacuum, but when you sit down and go, “so am I an adult now?” I mean, as a kid I never asked myself that question.

“Hey, you’re 18 now; that means you’re an adult!” But I’m too stupid to be an adult. That can’t be right. Also, I drink way too irresponsibly.

“Hey, you’re 28 now; you are so an adult.” But I’m still stupid! Also, I only clean my room like once a month when the carpet gets a texture. Cleaning doesn’t include dusting because there are too many Alien toys in the way. Adults dust. They also don’t collect Alien toys.

Yet I can say that I’m a different person than when I was 18. God help me if I wasn’t. I can say my tastes have changed, along with about a thousand other things too.

Now, this is all a really bad way of getting to The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore, which I’ve finally reread as a pretend adult who doesn’t clean his room all that often and still buys toys.

See, I picked up The Thousand Orcs around 2003 and began my journey with Drizzt Du’Urden (I pronounce it Drizzit) when I was a freshman in high school. Drizzt became a huge part of my life. Honestly, he became a friend. So did Bruenor, Regis, Cattie-Brie, Wulfgar, and Guenhwyvar. From 2003 to 2014, a part of me lived in Toril with these characters and their ever-dangerous world filled with orcs, giants, demons, and dragons. And probably the occasional werewolf.

At the end of The Last Threshold, I stopped.

It felt like a milestone, like the end of that booked mark the end of childhood. I was editing my first novel and at a job that, while I didn’t enjoy, at least paid well. I’m also pretty sure I got a blender as a Christmas present and was super happy about that. Like, irrationally happy to have a goddamned blender.

No 401K though. I still don’t have one of those.

Time continues to pass. It seems like every year I look at my bookshelf and pick something to get rid of. It’s shrinking faster than it’s growing, which is really sad. At the same time, no, I’m never going to read the novelization of Aliens vs. Predator ever again. I don’t even know why I read it a first time.

I know why I read Homeland a first time, though why I’ve decided to read it a second is a bit complicated. Suffice to say, here we are.

Homeland2

13 year old me and 28 year old me have different opinions on Homeland and the books that follow. It’s surreal, really. I’m a completely different person than the stupid freshman in high school hiding behind a fantasy novel because he had no friends. (I now hide behind alcohol for that, thank you very much.)

I’ve changed.

Or at least, somewhat. Drizzt showed up and nostalgia hit me so hard that I saw stars. Yet there was a difference to him, something not quite right. I missed him—truly I did—yet he wasn’t the elf I thought I missed. There was more angst, more anger. Something was wrong.

That something was me, of course.

I went through Homeland and Exile in a bit of a haze. I had grown up, but the books hadn’t. Drizzt is whispering, “come on, let’s have a look around this bend to see what adventures await!” and I’m going “But almost none of this makes any sense! Why does the Underdark not have rules?”

Drizzt plays at swords and internal struggles, killing hook horrors and hating his parents like 13 year old me listening to Eminem, and I’m stuck on, well…everything else. I get it, but only intellectually, where it doesn’t matter. I need to get it in my gut.

At the same time, I was having fun. The world of Toril is just kind of conducive to that, execution notwithstanding. I churned through Homeland in a few days, and Exile didn’t take much longer. By the end of Exile, I was starting to feel a bit better about everything, too. Yeah, Zak’s climactic end is anime bullshit, but Drizzt’s whispers of adventure were getting harder to ignore. That, and Sojourn promised a journey to Ten Towns. That’s when THE LEGACY really begins, after all.

I was also beginning to appreciate some aspects to Drizzt and his struggles that I hadn’t noticed when I was 13, which is funny because subtlety doesn’t really exist in the Underdark.

I’m used to black-and-white morality in my fantasy stories. It sucks, but it is what it is. Sauron is evil for the sake of evil and so are his orcs. Drizzt’s world though is a bit greyer. To be sure, Menzoberranzan is largely pants-on-head stupid, but it’s also filled with antiheroes like Zak and Jarlaxle. They bring forth some nice questions about what it is to be good and how one should follow their own morals—or how one fails at following their own morals.

Zak is by all accounts a good character. He’s one of maybe three in the Underdark. But wow does he enjoy killing dark elves. Yeah dark elves suck, but so does murder. It begets some questions that aren’t so easy to answer, such as the roles of nature v nurture and religion as a cultural cornerstone.

Drizzt’s trip through Blindenstone is likewise filled with introspection. It’s not always well written to be sure, but I like that it’s there.

When I was 13, I was all about the sword fights and goofy magic. Now though, it’s the moments between that shine the brightest. Ironically, those are generally moments of deep despair.

Come Sojourn, and the questions keep piling on, as do the character moments. Does Drizzt kill a bunch of giant monsters? Of course. But his interactions with a small farming village and the subsequent chase as he’s framed for killing a family are far more tense.

And for all my complaints, R.A. Salvatore is one of those writers that makes it so easy for me to lose myself, to see through the pages and into the world. I’ll criticize the prose in these novels until I’m blue in the face, but his words are effective. I could see Drizzt fighting alongside Mooshie, shooting arrows into an army of orcs. I could see the darkness spell on Mooshie’s shield, the blind ranger moving around like a black hole of swords and screams.

I mean, it’s stupid, right? Drizzt can throw out globes of darkness and fairy fire, and every time he does—be it the first or the thirtieth—we get an explanation of what and how. It’s frustrating, yet it’s exhilarating too.

I suppose I should wrap this all up with some platitude about being an adult, how knowing when to work and when to just enjoy is the marking of maturity and wisdom or some shit, but I’m not. If I had any answers, I wouldn’t be writing this pseudo-introspective essay about a dumb fantasy novel. Clearly I do not have my shit together.

I could also wrap this up in a review way, giving the series a score and a recommendation, but I won’t do that either. I don’t know if these are good. I’m too attached, even with a 14 year gap.

I am going to read the next three though. And perhaps the next four after that. I might even go the distance and read all 23. Who knows? At this point, I think I’ll just be happy to have a friend back, even if it’s only for a moment.

Maybe tomorrow I won’t be stupid.

My Top-5 Trades of 2016

Continuing on from last week’s post, here are my top-5 comic trades that came out in 2016.

5. Black Road Vol 1

Written by: Brian Wood

Art by: Garry Brown

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Road is a cold, brutal look at the spread of religion through swords and power told more through visuals than words. It’s a story of vikings, theology, and desolation, and while it is never once happy, it is always compelling and great to look at. Brian Wood is a fantastic character writer, but more than that, he knows that writing a comic means letting the artist do just as much as the storytelling as the author. Black Road is a drought of words, the kind of story where the Black Road speaks volumes while the characters trudge along in silence. Their facial expressions and posture say more than their words could. You can feel the wind blow across the pages. You can hear it howl. I don’t know where the story will go, but I’m very much along for the ride.

4. Negative Space Vol 1

Written by: Ryan K Lindsay

Art by: Owen Gieni

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s not every day that an author can perfectly pair comedy with depression, but Ryan Lindsay managed it with Negative Space, a dark comedy with a Lovecraftian twist. The series opens up on a writer struggling to finish his suicide note. It’s a brilliant idea that continues on in a mostly-brilliant way that is, above all else, unforgettable. The middle sections of this book are somewhat strange to be sure, but it’s beginning and end are perfection: utterly bleak yet forcing you to crack a grin all the while. The way this book ends will haunt you. When it comes to the artwork, Owen Gieni is carrying just as much weight as Ryan. Depression is hard to get right without coming off as too extreme, but Owen nails it on every page. The sorrow is real, and so are the Lovecraftian monsters.

3. How to Talk to Girls at Parties

 

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Fabio Moon

Publisher: Dark Horse

It’s Neil Gaiman at his most Neil Gaiman. To say anything more would be redundant.

2. Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

Written by: Dave McKean

Art by: Dave McKean

Published by: Dark Horse

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash might be the most important comic to come out in 2016. It’s a strange story to be sure, a surrealist mix of historical fact (artist Paul Nash as a real person and painter) and historical fiction (his paintings, and what happened to him during World War I); the surrealism makes it hard to tell one from the other. Plot points meander in and out of focus as Dave McKean treats us to an absolutely stunning array of surrealist art that seems to shift in style ever handful of pages. Nothing ever looks the same, and hell, almost nothing ever looks traditionally pretty. That’s on purpose though, and the effect it has is nothing short of profound. This is a story of one man attempting to cope with the horrors of WWI through his artwork. Pretty is not the way to cope with war. This book really has to be experienced to be believed, but it’s the kind of book everyone should experience.

1. Troll Bridge

Written by: Neil Gaiman

Art by: Colleen Doran

Publisher: Dark Horse

One of my favorite things about 2016 is that Neil Gaiman wrote us a fable. Troll Bridge is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Jack meeting a monster that wants to eat him and twisting his way by making a deal: He’ll come back when he’s older. He’ll be a better meal that way.  The rest is a character study of Jack and the bumps in his road that turn him into a cynical monster not worthy of a troll’s dinner. The rest is a hopelessly realistic portrayal of growing up and losing your childlike fantasy. The rest is about depression. The rest is about monsters and how they’re people too. The rest is, well, about life. Like all good fables, Troll Bridge has more to say about the world than it first lets on; it’s a kind of intellectual food, and it would be remiss if you didn’t take a bite.

My Top-5 Comic Series of 2016

2016 is the year I jumped out of my comic-book comfort zone. I sampled as much as I possibly could, and to me, that’s the spirit of the medium. Super heroes are what the general public see, but anyone who’s stepped foot into a comic store knows that when it comes to putting words over pictures, anything and everything is fair game.

It’s wonderful, and 2016 saw the release of many wonderful books. We had more I Hate Fairyland, more Wayward, more The Autumnlands, a new series from Jim Zub, two different Alien runs from Dark Horse, two Neil Gaiman trades, tons of scifi and fantasy from Image, a Lovecraftian crime noir miniseries featuring a talking cat, New Superman, and whatever wonderful piece of literature A.D.: After Death is turning into.

That all being said, picking my top five series and top five trades for 2016 wasn’t all that difficult. This was a good year for comics, but the best-of-the-best truly stood out more than ever. Plus, I gave myself two very strict rules to follow:

  1. No repeats from 2015
  2. The comic must have at least four issues out or completed its first arc.

This means that while A.D.: After Death is probably the best thing I read this year, it isn’t on the list. It also means I Hate Fairyland, Wayward, and The Autumnlands aren’t on here either, since those were my big favorites from 2015.

The idea is to promote new series or series with strong jumping-on points. Plus, talking about how good Wayward is at this point is just boring. I’ll be doing my top-five series in this post and my top-five trades next week.

5. Aliens: Defiance

Written by: Brain Wood

Art by: Tristan Jones, Tony Brescini, Stephen Thomson, and Dan Jackson

Publisher: Dark Horse

If you count the comic books and novels, the Alien franchise is actually jam-packed with content, and a lot of it sees the same ground being tread over and over. It’s perhaps never boring, but even I’ll admit that some of the franchise’s biggest tropes are starting to feel a bit derivative. Brian Wood seems to know this, because Aliens: Defiance is all about taking long-running tropes and expectations and shattering them. Zara isn’t your standard badass heroine, Davis isn’t your standard synthetic, and their fight against the titular Aliens isn’t your standard action romp. Everything about this series is character driven and outright lonely, because no one can hear you scream if no one is around. This coupled with a fantastic lineup of artists that know how to make great use of shadows have turned this into my favorite, non-movie Aliens series to date.

4. Glitterbomb

Written by: Jim Zub

Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan & K. Michael Russell

Publisher: Image

In my introduction, I said that anything and everything is fair game in the realm of comic books, and Jim Zub is certainly proving that with his new series, Glitterbomb. Take one part drama and one part horror and stick both into a very dark, very strange character piece set in the worst parts of Hollywood. That’s Glitterbomb. Farrah is a down-on-her luck actress with a pig of an agent and barely enough money to pay her babysitter, and while that’s enough for a compelling story on its own, she encounters something otherworldly and…turns. It’s nail-biting horror through and through, though not because Farrah herself is scary but because she’s completely unpredictable. Well, she’s also a little scary. Her shift is some grade-A body horror, and the brutality on display would make Stephen King nod his head in approval. Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell excel at facial expressions that say more than words cannot, and they do blood and gore pretty darn well too. Everyone looks and feels human until they are not.

3. The Hunt

Written by: Colin Lorimer

Art by: Joana Lafuente

Publisher: Image

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a big fan of horror. I don’t like the gore-ridden, slasher kind though; if you want to keep me up at night, you need to give me terrifying ideas first and great characters second. The Hunt is both. The idea is that upsetting monsters that are well versed in magic is an awful, awful thing to do, and the character is Orla, a high-school girl who knows just enough magic to think she’s in control when she very clearly is not. The rest is a kaleidoscope of Irish mythology, changlings, threats of damnation, and a small beastery of monsters. The artwork here is never short of phenomenal, so much so that I find myself going back and just flipping through the pages. The Hunt just might be the prettiest comic to come out of 2016.

2. Black Hammer

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart

Publisher: Dark Horse

As someone that isn’t well-versed in super hero comics, it’s impossible for me to talk about the structuralism of Black Hammer, which is one of its biggest selling points. Intellectually, I know know what it’s doing, but I don’t have the experience to really appreciate it. Yet as an average fan of comics–and someone who has a strong dislike of superhero comics–I find Black Hammer to be astounding in its execution and scope. Jeff Lemire is a wonder at characters and voice, and superhero status or no, it’s the characters that sell this series. From their motives to their flaws to their backstories, each one feels ridiculously real, like they’ve been around for twenty or more issues and not six. The writing is truly exceptional. Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart match the tone and characters perfectly as artists, and while Black Hammer is never pretty to look at, it’s interesting and fits the writing.

1. Black Monday Murders

Written by: Jonathon Hickman

Art by: Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Monday Murders is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the last five years, and I make it a habit to read a lot. It’s a crime story, one with a detective trying to solve a murder, yet it’s also a story of cults, satanism, magic, money, bankers, economics, and perhaps immortality too. Everything about it is strange in the best way possible. Each issue is oversized and paced with brutal perfection, because Jonathan Hickman is a genius and he knows what it takes to tell a good story. He also knows that telling a good story sometimes means breaking rules. Black Monday Murders is not afraid to end a scene with a series of blank pages, and it isn’t afraid to use outright prose either. A character might die on page ten, and on page eleven there’s a confidential dossier with half of its words redacted out. The two are related, and it’s up to you to figure out how. Tomm Coker and Michael Garland match Hickman’s written precision with their artwork. The book is gorgeous, and like Black Hammer, the artwork fits the tone, characters, and style perfectly. It’s rare to find a team that so clearly play off of each others strengths, but every scene is better for it.

On Writing My Third Novel

Back in August, I wrote a short essay titled, “Permission to Fail,” where I vented about writing and editing my second novel which concluded with me hinting at starting a third novel. I then went on a 100-day break of no blog posts.

Gee, I wonder what I was doing!

I finished the first draft of Toyland sometime last week. It measures almost 75,000 words and, as far as first drafts go, is a complete mess. Good god the amount of work I’ll have to put into this thing to get it into shape is staggering. Continuity errors, continuity errors everywhere! Not to mention the slipups in writing, the overly-long action sequences that are hard to follow, and the immature level of cursing that goes on.

Seriously. I think I drop over a 100 fuck bombs in this one. I haven’t counted yet because I’m afraid to.

Before I continue, here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary of Toyland:

BP6 is the sixth pawn in the black kingdom. He’s a chess piece, and he hates being a chess piece. It’s a pretty shitty gig, so he spends his free time snorting sugar, drinking soda, and sexually harassing Darbie Dolls as a way to forget how much he hates himself. Things change when he drunkenly sneaks into a G.I. base and steals a top-secret weapon that’s actually just a lighter.

BP6 takes this weapon back to his kingdom, lights everyone he hates on fire, and then proceeds to go on a drunken rampage through Toyland. His long-time friend John (G.I. John instead of G.I. Joe because trademarks) is after him, but it doesn’t take long for half of Toyland to join in the hunt. This is a weapon that works!

The novel itself is one parts action, one parts dark comedy, and maybe six parts existential angst. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story movie, all of the toys in Toyland think they are real save BP6. BP6, however, is ill equipped to handle the realization that he’s not real, so he turns to violence and drugs.If he isn’t real, then neither is anyone else and who cares who dies?

It’s a strange, strange novel.

The ideas behind Toyland are old. I created the basic premise somewhere around 2011 when I was working a job I loathed and wished I could burn the place to the ground. I felt like a pawn. It was then that I wrote the first line to the novel, one I’ve been carrying around for five years:

The plastic man in army fatigues walked through the cardboard castle.

See, BP6 isn’t really the main character, his friend John is. John’s the one who has to come to terms with the fact that his best friend is a monster, that the army he trusts keeps dark secrets, and that Toyland isn’t what he’s been lead to believe it is. There are monsters out there.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, there are four main characters in this novel: BP6, John, Frank (he’s a Viper Commando), and White Knight 2.

This was a delightful surprise at first. The best part about writing is the discovery; however, the worst part about writing is the discovery. I wrote myself into more complex situations than a dumb book about a pissed off talking toy really needs, and juggling multiple characters isn’t exactly easy. I don’t know how George R. R. Martin does it.

Each character winds up meeting more characters as the story goes on, so what started with four people wound up turning into over 20. John has three squadmates, Frank has three squadmates, and both BP6 and WK2 find all sorts of crazy folk on the floor of Toyland. Then there are the main villains, a Mega Brick Kingpin that I based off of Samuel L Jackson, a depressed underground railroad train that was built under the ground and can’t escape, and a pet lizard that showed up out of goddamned nowhere. Seriously Casey, why?

There are characters I created to move the plot along assuming they’d offer some exposition or direction that wound up living all the way to the end. Because writing is about discovery, and that’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t kind of game.

It was fun though. My biggest worry about writing is that it’ll turn into a chore, that I’ll get used to it and start going through the motions. This book though, this book was damn fun to write. I got to create the most bizarre, stupid world of my writing life thus far, and that’s saying something as I’ve written high fantasy.

I have fight sequences where transforming robots are trying to take a water fountain so they can steal water balloons, and I have another fight sequences that takes place inside a giant Mega Brick city. Think The Lego Movie but with more dismemberment and swearing.

Almost all the characters are out of their minds in some way, too.

If I learned anything, it’s that the reasons I enjoy writing haven’t changed. Discovery is fun, and outlining ruins that. I did almost zero planning for this book, and yeah it threw me into some really hard directions to work with, but it was always fun. I’ll fix the problems later.

I also learned that keeping a sheet of notes as you go is as necessary as ever, even if I once again didn’t do that. Old habits die hard. Less also continues to be more, adverbials are still the devil, and describing a stuffed animal burning to death is a lot harder than it sounds.

Toyland did mark the first book that I shopped ideas with a writing circle. I’ve stumbled upon a few places via Facebook and Neogaf this year, and they really proved their worth. I never asked for feedback on wording, paragraphs, or chapters, but going, “Hey what if” wound up being super valuable.

Corners are easier to navigate out of when you have outside perspective.

I don’t know what will happen with this book when it’s done. I also don’t know if this blog post has any value other than my own self wanking. Regardless, I hope there’s entertainment to be found somewhere, because while fun is the first rule, I try to make entertainment the second. I’ve read too many bad books to not want to at least be entertaining.

Permission to Fail

About three months and some change ago, I finished my second novel. I meant to do a post-mortem on it right away, but finishing draft five feels no different than finishing draft four or three. It’s just by draft five I’m so sick of my stupid self that I can’t take another look without wanting to gouge my own fucking eyes out.

I guess it’s also better than drafts three and four, but eh.

The last two months have been awash in sending my query package to agents along with sample pages. So far I’ve had one bite and 13 official rejections, which is a nice ratio all things considered. It’s hard to really feel positive though; the one maybe cannot outshine 13 no’s.

It’s also worth noting that about four days ago I rewrote the first paragraph again. An editor’s job is never done and an author will forever hate his books regardless of how many times he or she looks at them.

I’m pretty sure if you LIKE what you’ve written, you’re doing it wrong. Stop being so positive. It hurts me on a philosophical level.

At any rate, come Sunday I’ll get up early, fire on my PC, toss on some heavy metal, and then go through another few pages of a literary agent database and send my stuff out. Next week will be a trickle of, “go away please” whenever as I check my email when I get home from work. Rinse, lather, repeat until a year has passed.

Fun fact: This whole endeavor causes me to grind my teeth at night. I try to overcome stress with a constant stream of self doubt and loathing, but I just can’t shake the little hope I have every time I check my email when I get home. With that hope comes dread, and that usually wins.

Why the fuck do we do this, guys? Good god. It’s insane.

Failure isn’t just a possibility; it’s an inevitability. The odds of getting picked up by an agent who can then sell my fucking book are so terrible that the only thing keeping me going is blind stubbornness. Well, that and spite. There are worse reasons to do something stupid.

Because at this point, hope can fuck right off. I’m sick of that scrawny little bastard.

However, despite the above vomit of negativity, I’m feeling pretty alright. See, I’ve had this novel idea kicking around since 2012, and as of two days ago, it’s starting to yell at me again. It’s very persuasive.

Back when I had the idea, I never thought I could write a novel. I was too inexperienced and needed to cut my teeth on short stories first, which I never got around to writing because I was a lazy asshole. It wasn’t until…what, 2014? that I wrote my first book because the idea would not stop yelling at me until I tried.

Two novels later and now I know the game…well, somewhat. I know that it’s fun if I do it right and that first drafts suck. I know that it’s at its best when I give myself permission to fail.

I did not do this for my second book. That was a big mistake.

I just got done penning myself a little note in a Word document. It reads thusly:

Just so you know, future self, it’s okay if this book is complete garbage. Honestly, it will be at first. That’s how this went the last two times, remember? So please, please, please don’t stress out about that shit and just have fun. This one needs to be fun. It’ll be the biggest shame in your writing life if this isn’t fun. Enjoy. Worry about quality later.

AND DO NOT OVERTHINK EVERYTHING WHILE YOU ARE AT WORK YOU STUPID CUNT OR YOU WILL RUIN EVERYTHING LIKE LAST TIME

I mean, it isn’t poetry or even good, but it’s important. It’s the difference between me approaching this thing with my head up my ass and me approaching this thing to have a good time and maybe tell a fun story.

It’s also the difference from me stressing out about quality if things aren’t going my way. It IS okay to just stop, to scrap a bad idea that isn’t working. I’m really, really bad at that because of that aforementioned stubbornness and spite, but hey, at least I know it’s an option this go around.

I don’t know if I’ll start this next book tomorrow or not. I want to, but I’m also drowning in projects and am not sure what will need to be cut from my life to work on this. However, sooner rather than later, I’ll pledge a hundred days of writing a day until I have a shiny new turd of a first draft. I’ll then spend a year polishing said turd.

Because that’s what writing means to me!

C.L. Roman Blog Tour: Practical Advice for the Beginning Novelist

FireCandidate2

I had the pleasure of running into C.L. Roman recently, and she’s just about to release her next novel in the Witch of Forsythe High series, Fire Candidate, which can be preordered here. It releases March 24th. As a novelist, she has some advice for those about to take up the craft, and I thought ya’ll might enjoy it (I know I did).

But before we begin, here’s a brief blurb about her upcoming novel.

Most girls don’t set their birthday party on fire, no matter how rebellious they feel. But Lila Stuart isn’t most girls, and she never has been. Now her brand of strange is attracting a very bad crowd. She and her family must relocate, leaving everything she knows behind.
Tracked to her new home by a predatory demi-god, Lila is sold to a human trafficking cartel that specializes in people like her, first generation angel-human hybrids with powers that could make them heroes or deadly villains.

When the cartel threatens her family, Lila must choose: serve as an assassin or live as a slave. Will she find a way out, or is the cost of fighting back just too high?

The second installment in The Witch of Forsythe High series is a fast paced fire-storm about the choices life requires of us and the consequences they bring in their wake

“How do you come up with all that cool stuff in your novels? Your characters and settings are awesome. When I’m reading your novel, it feels like I’m right there. And your villains…” (shudders delicately) “…super evil.”

This is a portion of the fantasy conversation I’d love to have with a reader someday. It ends with the fan asking for my autograph and assuring me that I deserve a Pulitzer. For writing fantasy genre fiction. Hey, if you’re going to dream, go big or go home, I always say.

My fantasy also includes a secluded writing spot; four clean, white walls and a huge bay window through which I can see little forest creatures cavorting on a wide, green lawn ringed by ancient redwoods. No phone, TV, or (gasp) Facebook. Best of all – hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time.

But the operative word here is “fantasy.” These are rare scenarios, unless, of course, you are Dean Koontz or Nora Roberts. (Seriously, have you seen their houses?) For many authors, the writing life looks more like this:

Get up at five a.m., go to your day job. Work all day, constantly distracted by story ideas, terrified that they will escape before you can capture them. You steal the odd moment and write on whatever is handy: file folders, notepads, the desk calendar, napkins. Frustration sets in because you end up accidentally filing, covering, losing or throwing the notes away. You consider getting a notes app on your phone, but you worry that your boss will accuse you of making personal calls on company time.

The work day is over; you hurry home. Ideas are still buzzing between your ears as you maneuver through traffic. You arrive home and the kids/spouse/pets need your attention, so you feed and brush everyone and then, finally, the house is quiet and you hurry to your writing space and….your mind goes blank. You fear you’ve used all your creativity just to get through the day. But you power through. You pull out the crumpled napkin, power-gulp an energy drink and you write. Sometime around four a.m. you stumble into bed where your spouse gives you a sleepy side-eye but you are too tired to notice. You fall into the bed, already unconscious. The alarm goes off at five. Time to start over.

Alternately, you save your writing energy for the weekend and your spouse complains that they never see you, because you spend Saturdays and Sundays behind a closed door with this sign on it:

The writing life is challenging whether you work a day job or not. Business, family and writing all pull you in opposing directions. Plus, you have to sleep sometime. But for authors, giving up isn’t an option. Not writing causes mental and emotional agita. So you steal the moments and write the words that torment you until you put them on paper. It isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. So do it.

That’s my best advice. Create the space in your life for the passionate art of writing well. Surround yourself with like-minded people who support your efforts and dreams. Explain to your significant other how important writing is. Ask for their support. Be courageous enough to say, “no,” in order to guard your writing time. And write. Every chance you get, consistently, creatively, bravely. Write.

And of course one last friendly reminder that C.L. Roman’s newest novel can be preordered here