REVIEWING “BLOODSUCKERS”: THIS BOOK SUCKS…YOU RIGHT INTO THE STORY

Book Reviewed: Bloodsuckers: A Vampire Runs for President, by Michael A. Ventrella

Genre: vampire novel, political satire

Published By: 1632, Inc. 2019 ($14.99 in paperback)

I would like to first apologize again for the delay in posting. I had finished reading this most recent book a little while ago, but unforeseen life events have kept me from writing about it. But no more delays! Here we are with my latest review, and this one was great.

Michael A. Ventrella’s novel Bloodsuckers was an intriguing, subtly humorous romp through politics using vampire mythos intermixed with a presidential assassination attempt and the conspiracy cover-ups exposed in the aftermath. At the center of this whole mess is disgraced newspaper reporter Steve Edwards, who gets sucked into the world of the Van Helsing Society, a leading group that monitors the vampire phenomenon. The mission? To put a stop to the Presidential candidate who is secretly a vampire. But this is no simple mission, and it is complicated by one nagging question: would a vampire really be worse than the other guy running?

Michael is a talented writer, capable of penning a genre piece that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. I had a chance to trade messages back and forth with the author, and he warned me not to take the book too seriously. But I think that he sells himself short, for while the book isn’t “high literature” it is certainly better than most of the shlock books being released these days. What I liked was that it was a political book that didn’t attempt to bash you over the head with its message; Michael clearly has a political leaning (and I happen to lean the same way), but he goes after both sides of the aisle so as to be as even handed as possible.

This was an exciting book, complete with an eye-catching cover. Be sure to check it out!

BOOKISH CONVERSATION WITH CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN

This incarnation of our bookish conversations has been due for a couple of weeks now, and I apologize for how long it has taken. Personal and family matters took priority, but now everything has settled and I can get back to my first love of books and the ones who write them.

This bookish conversation is a real treat for me, because I am a big fan of this guy. Clay McLeod Chapman is a writer born and raised in Richmond, Virginia―he’s another Virginia boy like me, and even though he currently lives in NYC he still acknowledges his roots in his recent horror novel The Remaking. His newest terror-filled release due shortly is Whisper Down the Lane, but so you won’t think he’s a one trick pony Clay is also a writer for the stage and screen, with The Pumpkin Pie Show reinvigorating dramatic storytelling. He’s also written comics for Marvel, and I personally remember and love the short story collection from years ago, entitled rest area. There are of course many other works on the list; all I can tell you is to check them out, read and relish them.

I wanted to have a brief chat with Clay, and introduce him to the readers of the blog. I know that many of you will want to know more about him.

Greetings Clay, would you like to add anything to the introduction I’ve just listed above?

First off—I just want to say thanks for helping spread the word with The Remaking. It was a labor of love, so any time I get to chat with someone who enjoyed reading it, I feel very blessed. I appreciate it. Your intro gives me waaaay too much credit, but I’ll take it!

I wanted to talk briefly about the wide variety of works you’ve written. You’ve done both traditional and YA fiction, work for the stage and screen, and comics. What made you want to cast such a wide net, creatively speaking?

Part of it is born out of financial necessity, part of it is dumb luck… I say yes to just about any creative opportunity that comes my way. Writing for comics, for YA fiction, for film and beyond, most of those opportunities came from someone being exposed to the work that I wrote for myself, either my storytelling performances or the short stories in rest area, and them saying: “Hey. I like your stuff. Have you ever thought about writing for ____?” And my automatic answer has always been, “Yes!” I learn as I go. I continue to fail, sometimes miserably, but I get to seek out my voice in mediums I might not have had an opportunity to explore otherwise. Ultimately, though, speaking for myself, I feel like I have a lot of stories I want to tell and I try to let the story dictate which medium it wants to be told in… Some stories need to be comics. Others need to be for the screen. Leaning into the given medium and letting its specific attributes guide the story is a gift.

Your recent work has centered on horror. Between The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane you’ve gone into dark supernatural waters, and even with comics you broke down such terror-inducing characters as Carnage. Even your first book rest area went into strange (though very very good) territory in terms of psychological suspense. Besides everyone’s favorite author Stephen King, what was it that pushed you to delve into such outlandish territory?

I don’t think I’ve written much that would be found outside the genre. It’s always been horror. The early stuff I was writing was so Poe-focused. I was obsessed with Poe. And Flannery O’Connor. My short stories were just ugly Poe-O’Connor love children. The stories in rest area are horror, even if the packaging might suggest otherwise. Offbeat horror? Off kilter horror? There are no ‘monsters’ inside the collection, no vampires or werewolves, but it’s teaming with people who do monstrous things. Terrible things. That, to me, is horror. Straight up horror. Both rest area and my first novel miss corpus were horror-themed works that were packaged as… literary fiction, I guess? They just kinda withered away on the bookshelf. So with The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane, there’s been more of a direct attempt to say, “No, hey, this really is horror. This is spooky stuff with ghosts and devils and all that.” But, to be honest, one of the things that I love about horror is that it is such a wide, expansive genre. Supernatural horror. Psychological horror. Body horror. So much horror! And it all falls under one big umbrella… The terrain is vast, full of niches. A little something for everyone. Hopefully, I’ll never have to settle into one subgenre and can tell the stories that I want to tell… and hopefully, fingers crossed, there’s at least a few people out there who’ll be frightened by it.

You’ve gone on record describing the real world folktales that inspired The Remaking. I believe the original legend came from somewhere in Kentucky right? Why move the story to Virginia?

I wanted to put a bit of a layer of fiction over the true event, in order to prevent too much comparison between what supposedly happened in Kentucky and the story I wanted to tell. Plus Virginia is the world I know, so it makes me feel at home to root my story there.

You were obviously inspired by the horror movies of the Seventies and Eighties. What are some of your favorite films from that period?

Well, truth told, the movie “Don’t Tread On Jessica’s Grave” mentioned in The Remaking is a direct homage to one of my absolute favorite films of the era… Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Written and directed by John D. Hancock, starring the breathtaking Zohra Lampert, it is the inspiration for so much of The Remaking. My book is basically just fan fic for that film. All the way down to the writing style of the book itself. I wanted to write in the cadence of the movie. The breaths and sighs of it, the cyclical nature of the film’s voiceover, the dizzying cadence… it casts a spell over you. I truly, truly love that movie.

You’ve also gone on record saying you felt conflicted about being a man telling a story that belonged to women. If you don’t mind, what went through your head as you explored this conflict? Is there something in that conflict that you want to share with the next generation of writers?

The Remaking has appropriation on its mind. A mother and daughter are burnt at the stake because they are believed to be witches. Their story becomes infamous. It’s shared around the campfire. Someone turns their story into a movie… and then that movie gets remade. Their story is taken away from them, time and time again, usually at the hands of men, ‘auteurs’ with their own creative agendas. It wasn’t lost on me that I was writing a novel about all this and what right did I have to do so. It wasn’t so much conflicted as it was acknowledging my own complicity. I’m no better and I shouldn’t be let off the hook. That added layer, while not being textual, is still a part of the book. The second you see “written by Clay McLeod Chapman,” you know that I’m just as culpable. 

Before I go into this next question I want to say that I loved The Remaking. In my opinion the book was a near masterpiece. It was brilliantly written, and all but the last two pages were perfect. That being said, I felt that the last two pages, where the mother and daughter who birthed the legend get to have their final say, felt forced and a little too quick. If you could go back and do things over again, what do you think that Ella and Jessica would have to say about their story?

Sorry to hear you feel that way! But I can’t really answer this question… I don’t want to go back and change the ending. To each their own, right?

We’ve talked quite a lot about The Remaking, but you have another book due out soon. Would you like to talk about that for a bit?

Whisper Down the Lane hits shelves on April 6th. It riffs of the satanic panic era of the 80s, as well as the works of Ira Levin and others. Imagine telling a white lie about your kindergarten teacher. Now imagine that lie taking on a life of its own, consuming the lives of everyone around you… your friends and family, your classmates and teachers. But then imagine it going even further, spreading across the nation, riding a tide of paranoia that’s been simmering just below the surface of our country’s skin. Imagine that lie destroying people’s lives… and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Now imagine you’re no longer a child. You’ve grown up and moved on with your life. Nobody remembers who you are and the things you said as a kid… until one day, that lie suddenly comes back to haunt you. That lie becomes true… only it’s not about your teacher anymore. It’s about you. Someone out there knows exactly who you are and what you said as a kid and they want you to pay. That’s what Whisper Down the Lane is about.

What else is in the works for you? Any other horror novels or short stories that we can expect from you?

I’m embarking upon my next novel, which hopefully I’ll be able to talk about soon… It’s been an awful year across the board, but it’s certainly been a bountiful time to write. Whole lotta dread in the air. We’ll see if anything claws its way out of quarantine… 

One more question before we head out: Do I get brownie points for mentioning your early work? (He asks in jest, though I do dig your stuff.)

100%… rest area has no digital footprint. It’s fading to dust by the day. It simply doesn’t exist. You’re helping keep it alive, which honestly means the world to me. Thank you.

Thanks for talking with me Clay.

Thank you! Such a pleasure… Stay safe out there.

REVIEWING “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”: THE BLACK DETECTIVE STRAIGHT OUT OF THE MEAN STREETS OF L.A.

Book Reviewed: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Genre: series mystery

Publisher: Norton in 1990, then Washington Square Press in 2002 ($16.99 for the paperback)

So here’s another book I read in the spirit of Black History Month, and this one took a little bit longer for me to read even though I enjoyed it immensely. I am of course talking about Devil in a Black Dress, the first published novel by Walter Mosley and also the first to feature the hardboiled detective Easy Rawlins.

There is not a lot I can tell you about this book, as it is a mystery and I don’t want to in any way give away the ending for you should you decide to read the thing (and read you should, because this book is a real gem). The story features Ezekiel “Easy Rawlins” a Black man who has just been laid off at the airplane manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. A proud WW2 veteran, Easy nonetheless struggles to combat against the everyday prejudices that face him in 1940’s America, and it is that struggle that weighs over him at his good friend Joppy’s bar, where he drinks away his aggravation until a white man comes in looking for someone to go looking around for a white woman frequenting Black-owned establishments. The picture of the woman shows her to be stunningly beautiful—a real femme fatale if there ever was one. The money’s enough to cover the mortgage, and Easy has nothing else going on, so he takes the job in haste and learns to suffer the consequences in leisure.

There’s a lot to like in this book, from the twists and turns to the weird way that Easy philosophizes over his predicament with a strong narrative voice. That this was Walter Mosley’s first novel is amazing to me, as the strength of this book is the kind that can only come from a more seasoned novelist. Of course now Mosley has been writing and publishing for more than thirty years, so he’s adequately seasoned by now and doesn’t need my approval to defend his honor. But the book is like an object of strong electrical power, towing me off with its current and causing me to stop and gasp at the internal truths it offers.

One of the main drawing points to the book is that of its protagonist. Easy Rawlins isn’t your conventional series detective. His deductive skills rely heavily on a sort of luck of the draw; he’s playing the game of catch-as-catch can, and he is as far removed from the likes of Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe as he is influenced by him. But he’s smart, and he’s a survivor—Rawlins isn’t the kind of guy to depend totally on his luck because he knows that eventually luck will run out. What we have here is a one of a kind Black hero, one that stands proud in the longstanding tradition of crime noir.

I very much liked this book, and I’ve already ordered several more in this series. The latest installment, entitled Blood Grove, has just been released by Molholland Books. I will be sure to pick this one up as well.

REVIEWING “MARCH: BOOK 1”: THE FIGHT FOR EQUAL RIGHTS

Book Reviewed: March: Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Genre: Autobiographical comics

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions in 2013 ($14.95 for the paperback)

Here we are in the month of February, day four to be exact, and I felt like I wanted to play a bigger part in educating myself. It is Black History Month after all, and I am admittedly ignorant of a lot of Black history. That is shameful of me, I admit, for Black history is American history, and is also world history—to ignore the stories of countless Black men and women is to ignore a large part of what makes this country, and this world, so inherently great.

It was with that need for learning Black history that I checked out the three-part graphic nonfiction series by John Lewis, entitled March. I’d already read George Takei’s excellent graphic memoir detailing his experience as a minority facing injustice in America, and I sought to explore this issue further with Lewis’ work. I finished reading the first volume of the trilogy today, published by Top Shelf Productions just as Takei’s book was, and I was absolutely floored.

John Lewis was a U.S Representative to Georgia’s 5th district, a lifelong civil rights leader and a champion for political and social issues. He marched with Martin Luther King, and led various sit-ins, protests, and public works in order to better the lives of his fellow African Americans. Book 1 of course tells the first part of his story, from his childhood years on his father’s farm leading up to his time at college and the student protests that led to violence and police action taken upon him and his fellow demonstrators. The scenes of Lewis’ past are juxtaposed with his current life as a U.S. Representative, just before receiving the Medal of Freedom as well as living in the wake of the first Black President being elected into office. These alternating scenes make for a very real, very captivating read, and I honestly look forward to reading the second and third volumes in the trilogy.

I would recommend this graphic novel to everyone. This was a rewarding reading experience, a must-have for the conscious citizen.

REVIEWING “PSYCHO”: PERHAPS MY FAVORITE HORROR NOVEL?

Book Reviewed: Psycho by Robert Bloch

Genre: Horror

Publisher: Simon & Shuster in 1959, republished by The Overlook Press in 2010 ($14.95 for the recent paperback)

Before I go into my current book review, let me first apologize for something. For as many of you may well know, we are into the third day of February, which is of course Black History Month. Now I made a promise to myself that I would read some books by Black authors, and I intend to follow through with that promise. But the book I am about to review here was near the top of my To Be Read pile, and I just couldn’t resist. My next book to read and review is the graphic novel trilogy March, but for now allow me to play the fan-boy to the grand short horror novel Psycho—the novel that inspired the classic Hitchcock picture featuring the eerie Norman Bates!

I have talked before about books and their film adaptations, and I stand by my feeling that the balancing act between book and film is the weirdest thing ever. Regardless of that fact, there are certainly some real gems to be had from this symbiotic relationship; Psycho is one such gem. The book, no doubt partially inspired by the Ed Gein case, brought out not one but four movies, as well as a remake and a television series. It has become a national icon, and for good reason. As morbid as it sounds (considering the subject matter), I loved this book almost as much as Bates loved his mother!

The story deals with a middle-aged man who lives with his mother…well, maybe lives with her doesn’t quite ring true, but in any case they share a sort-of life together at their hotel. It is here where the violence and mental illness run rampant—the suspense is truly killer, and it builds perfectly towards a double-twist ending that left me with nightmares when I tried to go to sleep last night. The film version had the same effect on me when I first saw it. The story is so iconic and well know that I won’t get into it here, but I will tell you that the book is well worth a read, just as the original film is well worth a watch.

One of my film buff friends suggested that the book and movie were extremely similar, and I am inclined to agree. Honestly they are virtually the exact same story, except for the physical description of Norman Bates. In the movie Norman is exceptionally portrayed by Anthony Perkins, and in his performance he is young, lively, charming in a shy schoolboy sort of way. He looks forever young and is thin. But in the book he is overweight and a perpetual turn-off to those who encounter him. His readings in psychology and the occult are the same, but that particular personality quirk reads different in the book given his overall makeup. That eeriness just added to my enjoyment of the book.

Regardless of this difference between book and movie, I can’t help but shout out my love for Bloch’s novel. I would recommend it to any and all.

REVIEWING “THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN”: THE DARK SIDE OF BLIND FAITH

Book Reviewed: The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

Genre: True Crime, Biography, Religious Studies

Publisher: Simon & Shuster in 2017 ($28 for hardcover; $18 for paperback)

One of my guilty pleasures is an ever developing obsession with cults and madmen. I’ve read extensively on Scientology and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard (the book Going Clear is an excellent resource on the subject), and I’ve read briefly on Charles Manson and his family of oddballs. As a Southern Baptist I’ve listened to my share of stories concerning my own faith; being a religious person in this day and age has its baggage, and that’s coming from my involvement in a mainstream religion.

But what about for those who practice a much more esoteric, and perhaps even a more violent, brand of faith? That’s the question I sought to have answered by Jeff Guinn’s book on the Reverend Jim Jones, the man who led more than 900 of his followers into drinking a poisoned punch-drink in the jungles of South America.

Jim Jones was the son of an injured WW1 veteran and a self-important mother named Lynetta, a woman whose own beliefs in reincarnation and other similar beliefs helped to shape her own son’s theology later in life. Growing up in small town Indiana, Jim became obsessed with the various Protestant denominations near home; this festering obsession led him to memorize much of the Bible, and many of the local townsfolk remarked that the young Jones was destined to become a minister. And a minister he became, though his church didn’t preach the traditional gospel so much as it preached a mix of racial integration, civil rights, socialism and spurious faith healings. The church moved from Indianapolis to California, and from California to Guyana—it was in Guyana where he set up Jonestown, made infamous by the ritual mass suicide in November of 1978.

The book goes into great detail concerning Jones’ many transgressions: the mad thirst for power, money, and control; the sexual liaisons with the female members, and even with some of the men; the rabid egomania and the paranoid verbal screeds against the government. But what’s strange about this cult leader was the fact that at the beginning of his career, Jim Jones was a tireless defender of the African American community. The poor black community at the time remembers a pastor who worked endlessly towards making their collective lives better—this was one white man who practiced the social gospel, not just preached it. What happened to this early religious leader, and what made him turn into such a dangerous man? The book gives a lot of information, and plenty of interesting stories, but it couldn’t answer that one question for me.

In the end I would highly recommend this book. It’s well worth a read.

REVIEWING “DOOMSDAY CLOCK”: CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF THE “WATCHMEN”…IN THE DAWN OF SUPERMAN

Book Reviewed: Doomsday Clock, parts 1 and 2. Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank (based on, and continuing the story of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons).

Genre: superhero comics (collected into a graphic novel)

Published By: DC, collected in two volumes in 2019 and 2020 ($24.99 for each hardcover volume; $39.99 for the combined paperback edition)

I realize that reviewing another comic immediately after reviewing one might seem like a weird theme given the goals of the Online Book Club. Readers of a certain type might feel put off by this coincidence; they may even complain that I’m snubbing more esteemed literature in favor of the kind of book that would appeal to the common masses. To them I can only say this: kindly take a look at those around you, and then catch up to where the real deal is happening. While I will always try and make a point to read all kinds of books—from nonfiction to sci-fi, from horror to classic literary novels, from comics to books breaking down old school cinema—I do tend to review the books I actually read, and the books I read tend to be the kinds of books I would actually like. I grew up reading comic books, and some of my favorite reads growing up have been comics or graphic novels. I think the comic is the one uniquely American art form, and in reading the comics I would like to think of myself as living out my civic duty.

Those who would have a problem with this…well, they will just have to live on as best they can.

With the formalities out of the way, allow me to bring to your attention a story I have just read, the 2-part graphic novel entitled Doomsday Clock. This was a strange one for me, for a couple of reasons. For one thing this was a sort-of straight sequel to the iconic story Watchmen—you know the one, the book whose author famously disavowed due to the decades-long feud with the publisher due to creator rights. I won’t be getting into that here; I’m not the one to be telling a tale that would be best served being told by the great Alan Moore himself (and he has told it, on more than one occasion). For another thing this book connects the Watchmen universe to that of the main universe that’s seen in the pages of the current DC issues—whatever universe that may be at this current time. Those of you who regularly read monthly superhero comics will understand what I mean; the big comic publishers have these convoluted continuities among their titles, ones that need extensive retconning and retooling just to maintain some kind of order. In recent years we’ve seen over at DC such gems as The New 52 and DC Rebirth; these were attempts at restructuring their stories so as to better capitalize on their narrative and financial opportunities. These very attempts are the kind that have caused me to move away from more traditional superhero comics, in favor of nonfiction graphic works (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor) and crime dramas (Road to Perdition, A History of Violence). This might make me out to be a lesser-than in the eyes of my fellow comic nerds, but I like my graphic stories to be self-contained, and as straightforward as possible.

But while I am an admitted curmudgeon when it comes to superhero comics, I also admit to being intrigued by what this story was supposed to bring to the proverbial table. I am a big fan of Alan Moore’s writing, and Watchmen was one the first books of his that I read. Dave Gibbons’ art is itself a gem, and even though the book was written and set in the mid-80’s it’s just so remarkably brilliant and forward thinking that it could have been released as recently as last week. There have been prequel comics published, with the intended purpose of exploring the individual characters’ backgrounds. The quality of those individual books was a sort of hit-or-miss affair, so of course I came at reading this new comic with a hint of caution in my bones. The connection to the main DC universe also gave me pause; though I’ve enjoyed particular DC characters in my life, as well as specific stories written by some of my favorite writers (Batman: Knightfall as headed by Dennis O’Neil being a personal favorite), I still feel put off by the whole convoluted mess that is the DC Universe. At least the MCU films don’t take quite so much note-taking in order to enjoy them.

But I digress—the point of this review is to talk about Doomsday Clock, and whether or not I liked it. Honestly, that’s a bit hard for me to decide. The story takes place seven years after the events of Watchmen, and the man known as Ozymandias has been exposed as the orchestrator behind the New York City massacre. The threat of nuclear war comes back, only now it’s far worse on account of Dr. Manhattan being gone.  With a new person taking up the mantle of Rorschach, and a sadistic man-and-woman duo of puppet and mime-themed criminals, a plan is put in place to bring Manhattan back from the DC Universe so that he can save the world. As you can imagine, trouble ensues; much of that trouble stemming from a recently leaked conspiracy involving DC’s metahuman’s and the United States government. Superman, Batman, Black Adam and several others are involved, and Manhattan himself is personally involved in this ever-growing catastrophe.

The more I read, the more I dug into all of this, one question continued to gnaw at me: what exactly was the point of this story? I couldn’t quite figure that one out, and it frustrated me to no end. As a sequel to Watchmen it left a lot to be desired; it didn’t do much more than to undo the whole message behind the original work. As an attempt to further rewrite and fix the DC Universe…well, as I’ve mentioned before I’m not entirely interested in what the DC Universe does. I will admit that the mainline DC elements might have made it so that I’m perhaps not the ideal demographic for this particular book, but the Watchmen fan in me feels like I have been cheated out of something. Maybe some of Alan Moore’s relative surliness concerning continuations and adaptations of his work has rubbed off on me. Whatever the problem here, I just can’t shake the minor disappointment in finishing this story, and if the problem does lie with me then I would like to know where to go in order to rectify the problem. Maybe there are other stories related to this one that could help to fill in some gaps; I’ve been gone from superhero comics for so long that I may need to reset the clock in my brain in order to enjoy them again.

Or, wait…maybe resetting the clock was the point of this story. Hmm, I’m going to have to sit around and think on that one.

Rorschach’s journal, final entry. Signing off.

REVIEWING “DOOMSDAY CLOCK”: CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF THE WATCHMEN…IN THE DAWN OF SUPERMAN

Book Reviewed: Doomsday Clock, parts 1 and 2. Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank (based on, and continuing the story of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons).

Genre: superhero comics (collected into a graphic novel)

Published By: DC, collected in two volumes in 2019 and 2020 ($24.99 for each hardcover volume; $39.99 for the combined paperback edition)

I realize that reviewing another comic immediately after reviewing one might seem like a weird theme given the goals of the Online Book Club. Readers of a certain type might feel put off by this coincidence; they may even complain that I’m snubbing more esteemed literature in favor of the kind of book that would appeal to the common masses. To them I can only say this: kindly take a look at those around you, and then catch up to where the real deal is happening. While I will always try and make a point to read all kinds of books—from nonfiction to sci-fi, from horror to classic literary novels, from comics to books breaking down old school cinema—I do tend to review the books I actually read, and the books I read tend to be the kinds of books I would actually like. I grew up reading comic books, and some of my favorite reads growing up have been comics or graphic novels. I think the comic is the one uniquely American art form, and in reading the comics I would like to think of myself as living out my civic duty.

Those who would have a problem with this…well, they will just have to live on as best they can.

With the formalities out of the way, allow me to bring to your attention a story I have just read, the 2-part graphic novel entitled Doomsday Clock. This was a strange one for me, for a couple of reasons. For one thing this was a sort-of straight sequel to the iconic story Watchmen—you know the one, the book whose author famously disavowed due to the decades-long feud with the publisher due to creator rights. I won’t be getting into that here; I’m not the one to be telling a tale that would be best served being told by the great Alan Moore himself (and he has told it, on more than one occasion). For another thing this book connects the Watchmen universe to that of the main universe that’s seen in the pages of the current DC issues—whatever universe that may be at this current time. Those of you who regularly read monthly superhero comics will understand what I mean; the big comic publishers have these convoluted continuities among their titles, ones that need extensive retconning and retooling just to maintain some kind of order. In recent years we’ve seen over at DC such gems as The New 52 and DC Rebirth; these were attempts at restructuring their stories so as to better capitalize on their narrative and financial opportunities. These very attempts are the kind that have caused me to move away from more traditional superhero comics, in favor of nonfiction graphic works (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor) and crime dramas (Road to Perdition, A History of Violence). This might make me out to be a lesser-than in the eyes of my fellow comic nerds, but I like my graphic stories to be self-contained, and as straightforward as possible.

But while I am an admitted curmudgeon when it comes to superhero comics, I also admit to being intrigued by what this story was supposed to bring to the proverbial table. I am a big fan of Alan Moore’s writing, and Watchmen was one the first books of his that I read. Dave Gibbons’ art is itself a gem, and even though the book was written and set in the mid-80’s it’s just so remarkably brilliant and forward thinking that it could have been released as recently as last week. There have been prequel comics published, with the intended purpose of exploring the individual characters’ backgrounds. The quality of those individual books was a sort of hit-or-miss affair, so of course I came at reading this new comic with a hint of caution in my bones. The connection to the main DC universe also gave me pause; though I’ve enjoyed particular DC characters in my life, as well as specific stories written by some of my favorite writers (Batman: Knightfall as headed by Dennis O’Neil being a personal favorite), I still feel put off by the whole convoluted mess that is the DC Universe. At least the MCU films don’t take quite so much note-taking in order to enjoy them.

But I digress—the point of this review is to talk about Doomsday Clock, and whether or not I liked it. Honestly, that’s a bit hard for me to decide. The story takes place seven years after the events of Watchmen, and the man known as Ozymandias has been exposed as the orchestrator behind the New York City massacre. The threat of nuclear war comes back, only now it’s far worse on account of Dr. Manhattan being gone.  With a new person taking up the mantle of Rorschach, and a sadistic man-and-woman duo of puppet and mime-themed criminals, a plan is put in place to bring Manhattan back from the DC Universe so that he can save the world. As you can imagine, trouble ensues; much of that trouble stemming from a recently leaked conspiracy involving DC’s metahuman’s and the United States government. Superman, Batman, Black Adam and several others are involved, and Manhattan himself is personally involved in this ever-growing catastrophe.

The more I read, the more I dug into all of this, one question continued to gnaw at me: what exactly was the point of this story? I couldn’t quite figure that one out, and it frustrated me to no end. As a sequel to Watchmen it left a lot to be desired; it didn’t do much more than to undo the whole message behind the original work. As an attempt to further rewrite and fix the DC Universe…well, as I’ve mentioned before I’m not entirely interested in what the DC Universe does. I will admit that the mainline DC elements might have made it so that I’m perhaps not the ideal demographic for this particular book, but the Watchmen fan in me feels like I have been cheated out of something. Maybe some of Alan Moore’s relative surliness concerning continuations and adaptations of his work has rubbed off on me. Whatever the problem here, I just can’t shake the minor disappointment in finishing this story, and if the problem does lie with me then I would like to know where to go in order to rectify the problem. Maybe there are other stories related to this one that could help to fill in some gaps; I’ve been gone from superhero comics for so long that I may need to reset the clock in my brain in order to enjoy them again.

Or, wait…maybe resetting the clock was the point of this story. Hmm, I’m going to have to sit around and think on that one.

            Rorschach’s journal, final entry. Signing off.

A TALK WITH AARON CROCKER

And here we have the artist formerly known as… Erin. Aaron Crocker is one of my online friends, and he writes poetry and prose as well as works in the film industry. Book credits include Synchronicity and Menoetius, and Forbidden, an experimental dark fiction novella. He’s also an anthologist and editor, as well as an advocate for domestic abuse victims. I am honored to host this bookish conversation with my friend, Aaron.

Why don’t you introduce yourself to the group Aaron? Tell us how you got into writing, filmmaking, and the arts in general. What would you say is your favorite medium in which to create and speak truth to power?

Hi, my name is Aaron, and I am a recovering doughnut addict. In my spare time I enjoy dragging things through the woods at night and construction miniature guillotines out of toothpicks—since my HOA refuses to allow me to own a full-size structure, even if I promise to keep it in the back yard.

On a more serious note, I started writing as an undergrad. at the University of Mary Washington, and it clicked. Growing up an avid reader, I quickly embraced creative writing and it became a mode of healing, survival, and self-discovery as well as a passion. Creative writing acted as a segue into the film industry, another passion of mine.

My favorite artistic medium, currently, is screenwriting and directing. My long-term goal is to write, produce, and direct a full-length feature film based on one of my manuscripts.

You’ve written in various fictional genres, as well as spoken word poetry. You’ve also written scripts and made films. What has made you want to create in so wide a world (as they say?).

I create within a variety of mediums because, I don’t feel ‘claustrophobic’—for lack of a better word. Writing novels is amazing as is speaking poetry, but my spirit needs an extensive form of artistic expression or I begin feeling stagnant, but really, I listen to my intuition and I “go” where I feel comfortable at any given point in time.

Who do you look to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite authors and filmmakers? If there’s one perfect book or film out there (not made by you), what is that perfect work?

I’m largely into philosophy, whether I agree with it all or not, I appreciate the expressions—Plato, Kant, Emmerson, Aesara of Lucania, Margaret Fuller, Diotima of Mantinea, and the list could go on, but I’m sure most people are already asleep at this point and I won’t further that.

Currently my favorite filmmakers are Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, looking to the classics it would be Tobe Hooper and James Whale.

And as far as a perfect book or film, I am not sure that I have ran into a “perfect” one. 

What do you think of the online writing and filmmaking community? Is there merit to building friendships and connections with artists on the internet? What are the drawbacks to such a community, without a face to face interaction?

Through my years of networking within the online writing community—and I will speak to film and writing as separate entities as the communities are widely different in many ways—I’ve found an interesting mix. I’ve made some amazing friends with numerous writers in a variety of genres. I’ve definitely witnessed a fair share of close-mindedness and judginess, but I am sure that’s any community.

I can’t say that I’ve networked widely in the filmmaking community, but I’ve managed to make some wonderful connections.

Building friendships with other artists online has its ups and downs. It’s beneficial in terms of having a support system if you need some constructive feedback on an idea. In retrospect, it can be a bit distracting at times as well. It’s all about creating a balance with that.

The drawbacks are the same as a lot of online connections, in my opinion. I think that looking to the internet in general, a lot gets lost in written text and taken out of context—we lose nonverbal physical cues as well as vocal inflection, so it’s easy to have ideas and feedback misunderstood. Even though I am an introvert, I prefer face-to-face interactions with readers as well as other artists.

You’re an indie artist of sorts, with many of your works done on your own. Do you see the future of publishing and art moving in a more independent direction? Is there a benefit to this?

I don’t know that I can speak to the future of the publishing industry, but I certainly see my professional future sticking to the independent industry. Having been traditionally published and having had two traditional contract offers on “Synchronicity” and reading over those contracts, I felt as though I would lose quite a bit of creative control along with royalties. The mainstream industry is not right for me, but I am sure there are other authors who love it.

What would you say is your one message you want to get across through your work? What do you want your readers and viewers to learn from your books and films?

My works are not the easiest to read and they’re certainly not for everyone. When I sit down to begin any creative project, the first and most important question I ask is “What is this piece going to say about what it means to be human?”  I don’t judge the “good” or “bad” of that answer. I write what is in the world and do so, mostly, from a realist perspective.

Some of my pieces, “Forbidden” for example, which largely hinges on cult and religious abuse and utilizes this in heavy metaphor where each word has a particular and deep meaning—hence why I left it to novella length–is not for everyone and that’s okay! Not everyone will identify with every piece of art. The relationship between Lila and Wesley through “Synchronicity” and into “Menoetius” upsets readers. “Why would you write such a toxic relationship?” They ask.

“Because they exist in this world.” That’s my answer. I write what is in this world. I’m not saying it’s “good”, just that it exists. And as mad as that might make a reader, I’m okay with that. I want what I produce to elicit feeling, whether that’s anger, fear, happiness, whatever that feeling might be.

One final question: What is your favorite movie of all time?

Haha! NO IDEA! I couldn’t pick a favorite, so let’s go with anything horror/sci-fi based.

Thank you so much for talking with me today Aaron. For those of you who would like to know more about our guest, his Facebook page can be found here.

REVIEWING “THEY CALLED US ENEMY”: BLACK AND WHITE PICTURES SHOW US THE GREY OF OUR OWN EVIL

Book Reviewed: They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott. Illustrated by Harmony Becker.

Genre: autobiographical graphic novel

Published By: Top Shelf Productions in 2019 ($19.99 for the traditional paperback; $25 for the expanded hardcover edition)

Nearly everyone who has been around a television knows who George Takei is—he played the famous character known as Hikaru Sulu, found on the USS Enterprise in the famed hit sci fi classic Star Trek. Even those who might’ve missed the series will undoubtedly have seen the actor online, with millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. The son of Japanese immigrants and himself a native-born US citizen, Takei has formed himself as a strong role model for younger generations, as well as a loud and beaming voice for political causes. Yet while he’s most well-known for his acting and social media engagements, George Takei has also proven to be an inciteful and subtle comics writer—the book They Called Us Enemy is evidence of that fact.

You’ve no doubt heard Takei give his Ted Talk about his family’s experience with the Japanese internment camps; you probably heard him discuss parts of it in talk show interviews. But here we have the full story as one man could tell it (with the collaborative help of his fellow artists, as listed above), and it is a beautiful, gut-wrenching story indeed. Juxtaposing the events of his years in the camps along with his own career highlights, Takei goes on at length about his own troubled optimism concerning the democratic ideals of a country that has failed his own family. This optimism was in its own way shared by his father, Takekuma Takei, a man whose own ability to speak English and Japanese in equal fluency led him to become the block manager of the camp, thereby using this small position to better help his fellow detainees. These were first, second, and third generation Japanese Americans, many of them born in the United States and who had no allegiance to the country from whom came the attack on Pearl Harbor—and yet here they all were, house in one of several camps across the country by orders of Franklin D. Roosevelt and popularized by politicians such as Fletcher Bownan and Earl Warren. George Takei was only a child when this was going on, hardly able to comprehend the full scope of this horror—how can children such as he be made to pay for the sins of those who came from countless thousands of miles away, whose only connection to him was a shared ethnic background?

No doubt the United States was put in a strange and unique position upon entering World War 2, and our country’s leaders had to make decisions which would seem impossible to us today. In this matter they clearly made the wrong decision, and for several years at least they continued to double-and triple down on that mistake. When the time came to call upon young men for service the US decided that they may need to lessen their racial divide in order to supply more bodies to the frontline, but they had to continue piling on the insult with a loyalty pledge and questionnaire, asking those of Japanese ancestry to revoke their heritage and swear complete allegiance to the country that had imprisoned them without having ever committed a crime. For people like George’s father, a man who had been born in Japan but raised in the US, this posed a far greater insult, for the same country asking him for his service had been the one that had denied him citizenship. Between that and the pressure to swear off his ancestral home, Takekuma Takei was essentially being asked to become a man without a country. What kind of thing is that to ask of someone, especially one who is made to suffer such indignities—along with his own immediate family?

And yet George’s father still upheld the striking ripe-hot optimism in the ideals of American democracy, emphatically passing them along to his son in many frank discussions over the years after their family’s release. Only one other man in history can I think of who placed such strong faith in the institutions of democracy, and George himself walked with that man in one of many demonstrations that were held across the various places in the country. I am of course talking about the Reverend Martine Luther King, Jr.

The comparison between the treatment of the Japanese and African American communities was just one of many eye-opening aspects of this brilliant graphic novel. I myself would like to think I love my country, but that love also comes with a great shame for my country’s sins. We must not forget that while we are a great country we are also an imperfect one; we must forever stand against these atrocities, so that they may never happen again.

George Takei is known for many things, his iconic roles over his decades-long career being one of them. But I would venture to say that this story is perhaps his crowning achievement, if for no other reason than for the fact that he has made me see the need for a better, more unified America. Thank you, Mr. Takei, and may you Live Long and Prosper.