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Fiction – Love is War 03:00:01:03

Books & Writing, Short Fictions

August 28, 2015

Every week, we’re going to post some new fiction for you to devour and read, with original art as a header, and then a collected version for purchase from our store when the book is complete. Questions? Comments? The writers are right here, and they’ll respond as they’re able. 

***

Click here to read previous entry.

***

03:00:01:03 –

Figo Jera vomited into the basin that Jesam had left in his chamber.

The Coeecian warlord had claimed the keep that Figo had been put in charge of when he had claimed Figo, leaving thousands of Vanir to die in a raven’s feast. He had issued a challenge and Figo had accepted, not noticing until after their weapons were locked that Jesam was not tired, was not wounded, was entirely rested. Figo had been battling all day, one duel after another, winning all of them – he had been flushed with his own strength and skill, so certain of victory, and Jesam had used that as a weapon against him.

Now, bound by his own honor, he was a prisoner among Coeecians. The only ally left to Figo was one of the ambassadors from House Suwilo, and that man was not even Vanir but some refugee from a far off nation, a fox that walked like and wore the face of a man. Farrell, the creature was called. Figo had never suspected him to be anything other than Vanir. He had been spared as a curiosity and now served as Jesam’s personal healer, his talents reserved only for Figo and Jesam himself.

After Jesam had taken him for the first time the Coeecian had looked deep into Figo’s eyes, smiled, and told him I do not love you.

Figo had wanted to fight, had wanted to scream. He did not know how long he had been kept, did not know how often he was pampered and proven weak by his savage Coeecian captors. They had handed him one of their practice blades and offered him escape if he could merely fight past them, had let him believe he was so close before a single blow to his back had rendered him incapable of movement. Jesam had driven into him that night, whispering mine mine mine over and over again while biting at his ear.

The healer had slaved over him for what seemed an eternity after that, stitching severed muscles together, teaching Figo how to use his arms again. His strength slowly returned but his confidence was shattered and there was a pain that never truly let him be, but he was alive and this was not the worst of what befell him.

No, no, the worst was his growing affection for the warlord that abused him at a whim, who displayed him like a jewel, who expected absolute obedience and offered him nothing in return save lesser abuses. Whenever Figo showed the slightest bit of resistance, Jesam would have him punished before taking him roughly, finally leaving the little lord to the wandering hands of Farrell.

The fox did what he could to ease the many pains of body and soul, but as one day bled into another Figo felt himself growing more and more distant. At first he was alarmed to realize that he wasn’t thinking for himself so much anymore, but even that sense of wrongness faded due to apathy. He sighed and accepted his lot, eyes downcast, listening to fewer conversations and not attempting to make any of his own, accepting the fate that had taken him.

He did not even react when he learned that Farrell had seduced Jesam and that the two of them were lovers. The fox never offered any excuses, becoming slightly abusive when dealing with Figo’s hurts. Figo barely noticed, becoming more and more the possession that Jesam saw him as.

Some things penetrated the haze that claimed his mind. As he knelt beside Jesam’s throne, the warlord’s fingers running through his hair, he learned a little of the Coeecian tongue, just enough to follow the gist of various conversations – but his understanding came too late in his captivity for him to do anything more than attempt to listen.

The Coeecians had rebuilt Jesam’s keep and were using it to do exactly what their betters had once done: stage raids outside of Ashaewulo’sabberkena while holding their ground inside it. Thus far no one had been able to take it from them. Jesam would sometimes toy with him during these meetings, and would beat him whenever a setback was suffered, hurting Figo in place of his people.

Figo could do nothing about any of this.

Jesam’s gentility was reserved more and more for Farrell, the scant care and attention that Figo received becoming ever more rare. Even Farrell’s kindness became more a mockery than anything that Figo could truly rely upon. He began to fear that he perhaps deserved this treatment, his sense of personhood melting into nothingness. The Vanir that came to try and defeat him were inevitably beaten back and Jesam used Figo as a sign of his dominance, presenting the fallen noble with every victory he claimed.

When it was said that a noble from some far off House was coming, Figo did not pay much attention. However, he did pay attention to the messenger, a tall and handsome figure dressed in blue robes, his hair and eyes as dark as coal, his feathered wings blacker than the darkest night. He sang instead of spoke, warning Jesam of what was coming. When Jesam offered Figo as an amusement, the beautiful stranger claimed him and toyed with him, but when Figo whispered the name of the coming noble the stranger spread his wings and fled.

Figo could have sworn he’d seen fear in those dark eyes.

Time passed. Figo could not have guessed how much. Though his House was obsessed with the ebb and flow of time and the passing of the seasons, he so rarely saw the sun or felt fresh air on his naked skin. Time passed and he was kept. Then, one day, the promised noble came.

Jesam had Figo brought out in chains, making him kneel before the warlord’s throne. He looked out at the assembled Vanir forces, armies from Houses Gebo, Elhaz, Wynn, and Jera, all assembled in a line and waiting. A single woman was pushed forward from their ranks. She had wild hair and even wilder eyes looking out from a gaunt face. She might have been pretty had she put in the effort, but it was clear from the annoyance she wore like clothing that she had better things to do. It took him a long moment to recognize the non-sigil of House Wyrd, a distant nobility that kept to themselves.

This lone noble had brought no army with her, stood alone without fear between the Vanir armies and the Coeecian horde. She looked at the wall, sizing it up, the levl at her hip an uncomfortable weight, the glove on her hand something that Figo had never seen before. She felt Jesam stiffen, heard his cruel laughter as he sized the woman up and found her lacking.

This is their hope?” The words were a muttered threat, the sign he gave his ritualists something that Figo had seen before. He felt sorry for the woman, for the doom that was about to assault her. The ritualists would take a minute, perhaps two, and then unleash forces unlike anything the woman could possibly deal with by herself. Figo managed to raise his eyes and caught the woman’s stare and froze.

Her eyes were hazel and without bottom. There was a mania there, a passion and genius that bordered on insanity that could not be withstood, could not be tamed, could only just be channeled into something that was nearly comprehensible. The moment the Coeecian magicians started their rites the woman smiled and met Figo’s eyes, the insanity there promising more than Figo could have dared to hope.

Moments before the ritualists unleashed their power the woman raised her gloved hand, speaking a word that Figo could not hear while slashing through the air. Light trailed after the glove, carving an etching into the world before her. Lightning gathered above her, called forth by the Coeecian shamans, a pillar of electricity that seared the breath of the world as it raced down towards her and split the earth around her – but the etching held and the lightning, the very fist of some mighty god that the Coeecians had called forth, shattered the land around her while letting her be.

Her laughter as the Coeecians and Vanir stared at her was full of a terrible madness.

She began carving the air once more and even Figo could feel the power that gathered in her hand, a power that should have been impossible to constrain in such a short time. Figo heard Jesam gasp and step back as the woman spread her fingers, a hurricane’s exhalation smashing into the earth and pushing it up, up, up into the stones of the wall, rocking the boulders, pushing them into the air and destroying the wall entirely. All this damage wrought by a single woman with her glove. She smiled as two nations stared at her in horror.

The woman drew her levl and began to walk forth.

Jesam shouted a battlecry, his people following his lead. The Vanir answered, two armies rushing forth on the battlefield, two entire nations forming a circle of quiet around the woman as she continued to walk directly to the place where Jesam still stood and Figo knelt.

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He called forth all the powers he could muster on short notice, wind and rain and lightning, but the walking woman ignored them all with a casual disdain. No Coeecian stepped in her way, the war between Coeecian and Vanir funnelled into the conflict between warlord and stranger.

When the woman was sixty feet away, Jesam drew his sword and screamed a challenge to duel. The woman smiled and accepted, carving her strange signs in the air, signs that could be seen one heartbeat and were gone the next. Jesam was a seasoned warrior, a ritualist who knew his way around a blade. The woman looked as if she had only just learned to hold her levl properly, like it had been shoved into her hands as the battle began.

Jesam attacked. The woman’s block was clumsy but it left her safe. Her attacks lacked all skill but still she penetrated Jesam’s defenses, surprising him as her left hand carved her strange etchings into the air. The look in her eyes said there could be no other outcome than this, that she would attack and attack and attack and that there was nothing that anyone could do to stop the woman from winning.

He died eventually, his wounds boring him down, blood leaking out of him as the light left his eyes. Figo remembered the look of the woman, the perfect clarity of her. Her stance, her technique, all implied a lack of skill that should have been her end, but she stood victorious with not a scratch on her. She knelt beside Figo and held him, just held him.

Are you alright?” she asked. Figo did not know how to respond, not remembering when he had last been given leave to speak. “It’s going to be okay now. You’re safe.” There was something in her eyes, some spark of compassion that Figo knew surprised them both. He fell into her arms, holding her while a war raged around them, the Coeecians calling retreat as they realized their warlord was dead.

***

Click here to read the next chapter.

***

More is coming next week. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

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884

God of Comics – Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E.

Books & Writing, Culture, God Of Comics, Reviews

August 27, 2015

“We all live in the shadow of Nextwave.”

I didn’t say that. Kieron Gillen said that. The guy that wrote Phonogram, the Wicked and the Divine, Young Avengers, Journey into Mystery, Angela – Asgard’s Assassin, that guy. Look at that list of comics. It’s insane. Those are some of the best stories to come out of this generation of writers. That’s a hell of a thing, but he took the time to acknowledge the towering accomplishment that is Nextwave.

To understand this, we need to set the stage.

Civil War was happening. Civil War is one of those comics that people that don’t read comics really seem to like, but as they get into comics they look back on Civil War and feel bad about themselves. It okay, theoretical reader. We all grow and mature. We all need to start somewhere. Civil War was a point where things really started going wrong with Marvel, where they decided that we were more interested in heroes fighting heroes. It’s where Iron Man became utterly unsalvagable as a hero, where the events that led to Peter Parker selling his marriage to Satan started, where Marvel set up straw-man arguments and achieved nothing save the devaluation all of their intellectual properties. The whole of it has been retconned out of existence except the bit where Spider-Man sold his marriage to Satan to make him more relatable.

It was penned by Mark Millar, a guy that seems to like shock for shock’s sake, a dude that seems to despise the medium that he makes his living off of. This doesn’t keep him from writing good comics, or, sometimes, comics that are heavily edited and become good movies. Kickass, Kingsmen, even Wanted to some degree.

How did Nextwave react to Civil War?

Nextwave 002

We joke about the truths we’re not comfortable talking about.

Nextwave didn’t go by the grimdark writing tropes that infested comics way back in the eighties and have lingered into the modern era, groping for the success and acclaim of the Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil Fall From Grace without any understanding of what makes those comics work. Nextwave instead focused on its own story, of lashing back against those types of stories and making something that was utterly unlike anything else.

Make no mistake: Nextwave is ridiculous. It’s five heroes you’ve never heard of breaking away from the people they work for to fight unusual weapons of mass destruction that are being field tested in America. It is about people being punched and things being kicked. It is a glorious series of two-issue stories that read like summer blockbusters, and it is a work of the purest and maddest genius.

And as for the content? Well…

Nextwave 001

This is a thing that happens.

I have a belief about how this comic was pitched. There is no evidence to support this belief, and it is nothing more than fevered imaginings. Still, it is the only way I can make sense of this comic being made. So, again: this did not happen, but it probably should have.

So, the story goes that Marvel is having a board meeting when the door slams open and Warren Ellis strides in, bottle in hand.

“I have an idea!” Warren says, as the various people that run Marvel look upon him and despair. For the purposes of this story, I like to imagine that the people running Marvel is a person, a single multi-headed dragon that Warren Ellis approaches without fear. “You will listen to my Idea or you will be destroyed!”

“Warren,” says one of the heads of Marvel. The large head, for those that must know. “I didn’t realize you were in the country. Listen, we’re in the middle of a meeting-”

“Shhhh,” says Warren Ellis, placing the tip of his finger on the dragon’s lips. He smiles a mad smile.

“I wouldn’t mind listening to what Warren has to say,” the smart head says. The others murmur their agreement, all realizing that Warren is not leaving until he’s shared with them an idea that will change the world.

“Okay,” says Warren. “Okay. Alright. Does anyone here remember HATE?”

“I hate you, Warren,” whispers the large head.

“What?” says Warren.

“I think he means the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort,” the smart head says, using a claw to scratch his third chin. “They were a SHIELD analogue back in the seventies, I think?”

“Why were they called HATE?” asks one of the younger heads.

“There was a lot of drugs going on back then,” the smart head says, smiling and looking at something no one else can see. He blinks, looking around the room, his vision returning to this reality. “Anyway, they were phased out.”

Nextwave 004

“What if they weren’t phased out?” Warren asks, hopping in a circle on his left leg. “What if, instead, like, all their funding went to SHIELD? They’d need to stay open. Right? Right? So, like, what it they decided to crowdfund?”

“Crowdfund?” the large head asks. “This is 2006. What is crowdfunding? Is it even a verb?”

“We’re a dragon, so use your dragon powers and look into the future for something called kickstarter,” the green head says, longing to return to the cave where they store their treasure. The others think he’s a little weird.

“Yeah, okay, so, HATE ends up crowd-sourcing for funding, and, oh, this is so good!” Warren laughs and does a little jig. “So, SHIELD has Hydra as an enemy, right? Well, HATE has SILENCE, and SILENCE becomes the Beyond Corporation, and the Beyond Corporation starts funding HATE!”

An awkward quiet settles over all the heads of the dragon.

“So,” says the youngest head, “HATE is being funded by their enemies?”

“HATE gets funded by the people that they’re supposed to stop!” Warren Ellis laughs and has a shot of the powerful drink he is carrying, knowing that the dragon cannot understand the subtlety of his genius. “Anyway, SHIELD is led by Nick Fury, and HATE has Dirk Anger.”

“Is he anything like Nick?” asks a head that, up until this point, has been quiet. A head that cannot be described, for any fine detail of the head is torn from the mind of the observer. Still, Warren Ellis dares to look this head in several of its eyes, holding the bottle of drink between them.

“He is better than Nick,” Warren Ellis says. “Let me show you.”

Fearless. Also a leader.

Fearless. Also a leader.

“How…,” the largest head looks uncomfortably around the room. “How did you do that?”

“I’m Warren Ellis,” Warren Ellis proclaims, as if this explains everything. And it does. You are now enlightened. “Anyways, SHIELD sort of his the Avengers, so Dirk has his own group of heroes.”

“Alright,” says the oldest head, who has been around long enough to see the shape of things. “Here we go. Who do you want on your superhero team?”

“Monica Rambeau is the team leader,” Warren Ellis says, climbing onto the table.

“Who?” asks the largest head.

“Captain Marvel,” replies one of the others. “Not that one, or that one. The other one. She was also Photon, I think? She led the Avengers for five minutes. No one’s used her in a while.”

“Let’s change that!” Warren Ellis howls, standing on the table and striking a heroic pose. “She has the experience, the wisdom! Let her lead and be my straight man!”

“Straight man?” the largest head asks. “Why do you need a straight man?” Warren Ellis backhands the largest head of the dragon and strides down the table, waving around the bottle in his hand.

“Do not question my muse, for she is Mighty!” Warren proclaims and, indeed, the bottle appears to be made of the same stuff as Mjolner. The dragon heads all look at one antoher, sharing the same thought – what potent drink might such a bottle hold? “Also, there is the Machine Man, but you should call him Aaron Stack.”

This is a thing that happens.

This is a thing that happens.

“Why?” the youngest asks, so Warren Ellis kicks him.

“Because robots are people, too,” Warren says, cradling the dragon’s head. “He has come back from his time among the Celestials enlightened, switching his fuel source to the one thing humanity will always have.” Warren thrusts his bottle up with powerful intent.

“He’s gone solar?” asks the green head.

“No, not at all,” Warren says, grinning a mad grin. “He is now powered by beer.”

Warren accepts the silence that greets this proclamation as acceptance.

“Also, there is Elsa Bloodstone,” Warren says. “Thing of her as Lara Croft’s evil twin sister who hunts demons, and comes from a long line of nigh-immortal demon hunters.”

This is also a thing that happens.

This is also a thing that happens.

“I think I’m in love,” the youngest head says, sighing.

“And why wouldn’t you be?” Warren says, his grin spreading to horrible lengths. “Joining them is the Captain.”

“Which Captain?” the largest head asks, veering away before Warren can strike him.

“Yes!” Warren laughs, spinning in place. “There’s a Captain for almost everything, so he just calls himself the Captain. He got his generic set of superpowers while drunk, and can’t remember his real name!”

“So, a self insert,” the wisest head mutters. Thankfully, no one else hears him.

“Anyway, their last member is Boomer,” Warren says. “Or Meltdown. Or Boom-Boom. Or whatever ridiculous name she has this week. She makes things explode and she’s a kleptomaniac, so she steels the Beyond Corporation’s plan to use HATE to test Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction in America, and our heroes abandon HATE to stop them.”

“So,” the wise head says, “you could say Nextwave rises above HATE?”

“Yes! Yes, exactly!” Warren cries, dancing on the table and kicking the paperwork everywhere.

“Sounds like a serious work,” the large head says. “What’s the tone?”

“Insanity!” Warren answers, staring the large head in four sets of eyes. “People will get punched. Things will get kicked. Two issue stories, each one a summer blockbuster. A tribute to the glorious excesses and madnesses of the medium!”

“If we say you can do this,” the oldest head says, looking around the room cautiously, “Will you leave?”

“Yes,” Warren promises. “Twelve issues of greatness. You will give me this.”

“Yep,” the largest head says. “Please go away.”

“One more thing,” Warren says, throwing his bottle through the window so that it shatters. The bottle, made of the same stuff as Mjolner, returns to his hand. Warren Ellis is worthy. “There is a theme song.”

NextWave 009

His name is the Captain.

“Is that Dethklok?” the oldest head asks. Warren Ellis just grins.

“Hail Hydra,” Warren says, bowing with a flourish before teleporting away. A sentence lingers after him, a warning carved flaming in the air. “The name of the team is Nextwave.”

The story ends there.

Again, that didn’t happen, but it should have. This is the way that Nextwave was pitched in the truest world, of which we are all but an echo. Somehow, somehow Nextwave exists to rescue us all from the banality of grimdark and idiot politics and greed and pretense. It is an act of genius, a self-contained work that flies in the face of conventional logic, transcending any understanding of a sane universe. Warren Ellis wrote it. Stuart Immonen did the pencils, Wayne von Grawbadger the inks, Dave McCaig the colors, and Joe Caramagna the letters. We owe all of them a great debt that can never be repaid for crafting this comic, but we do not have to. By working on on Nextwave, all of them transcended the stage of history. They are as gods walking this world.

And we are all better for the existence of Nextwave. It’s okay that we all live in the shadow of Nextwave, and all our worlds are a better place for it. If you like fun, if you have ever been in love, if you have thought to yourself that this world is an okay place, if you have a soul, you need to read this comic. And if you never had any of those things, Nextwave will show you how to have those experiences. It will make you a better person if you let it. You can and should purchase Nextwave by clicking on this sentence.

Saving America one explosion at a time.

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653

Fiction – Love is War 03:00:01:02

Books & Writing, Short Fictions, Uncategorized

August 21, 2015

So, way back when, some rather good books were published a page at a time in newspapers. The Sherlock Holmes series, the Count of Monte Cristo, and the Three Musketeers are all tales that got their start in this fashion, and we’d like to follow suit. Every week, we’re going to post something new for you to devour and read, with original art as a header, and then a collected version for purchase from our store when the book is complete. Questions? Comments? The writers are right here, and they’ll respond as they’re able. 

***

Click here to read previous entry.

***

– 03:00:01:02 –

They called her the Golden Champion.

Hekro Gherlid of House Gebo had lost count of the soldiers that had come to her and told her that they believed they would survive this war only because of her guidance. Sometimes she let herself believe their words but she knew a grim truth that would have broken the ranks around her; that she was not the giant that all these people made her out to be, was merely a Vanir noble doing what was needed of her, even though she did not feel she did it especially well. Her forces won more than they lost and she held her independence and lived up to her word. These were not qualities, she thought, that should have made her the object of such blind adoration.

Ages had past and she had served along the Coeecian border all her life, fighting against the hordes of savages that sometimes surged from the southlands. She had learned a little of their strange ways and even knew a smattering of their language. She even knew how to pass for one of their number from a distance – the ways they stood and carried themselves – but the blood of the Vanir ran proud in her veins and her features would never be mistaken for anything less.

She stood with arms at her side, one hand resting on the pommel of the levl she wore across her back, the preferred weapon of the Vanir nobility. She had fought many duels with the weapon and won all of them. Generals and Dukes sometimes came to study her form, to master the techniques that she had cobbled together on the battlefield so they could train their own warriors.

In her youth she had sought tutors in levl fighting and had studied all three major styles, taken from them what she could while most children were still learning how to hold the weapon properly. She was happy to pass on her knowledge to those that wished to stand with her on the killing fields.

Those who came to learn for their own political or social benefit she sent away.

Rare among her people, Hekro believed in the sanctity of certain concepts, places, or objects. The levl was one of the things in which she had faith. A two-and-a-half foot length of metal inlaid with runes and hardened to the point of unbreakability, infused with the blood of the Vanir it was made for. Levls were sometimes passed down through family lines but most of the time they were designed specifically for the noble who wielded them. She had been told that the grip was as sure as any lover’s caress but this was not a thing that she had any knowing of.

Not that anyone else needed to know that.

She sighed and walked across the battlements that were her most recent assignment. The Vanir bards had taken to calling her army the Band of the Golden Cross, for her pennant displayed two golden lines on a black background. She had marched her soldiers over three thousand miles of terrain to bring them here, a soft spot in the Coeecian border, a valley that had been mired in conflict for centuries. It had been handed to one noble after another, claiming life after life until the ground itself was soaked crimson and the air smelled of copper.

When songs were sung of this place, the bards called this valley Ashaewulo’sabberkena – the Shadow of Death.

The latest offering the Vanir had made to the valley was a young man from House Jera, a noble line that Hekro had never had much use for. A slight youth, Figo Jera was more cute than handsome. Despite his boyishness he had proven to be a quick study and a capable officer.

For all his good qualities, however, he was still young and terribly naive. His enemies took advantage of both flaws, drawing him into the Ashaewulo’sabberkena with every intention of spilling his blood on the unholy grounds of the valley. When Hekro had arrived she had found Figo taking risks where what was lost far outweighed what there was to gain, even if he had been capable of gaining whatever goal it was he sought.

Hekro had quickly realized the boy’s limitations; Figo was not brash, just innocent. The Coeecian in charge of the forces which opposed them had recognized that failing for what it was, had taken advantage of it to fully decimate Figo’s forces. The loss had been devastating and even more experienced nobles would have found their troops demoralized in such circumstances. To his credit, the boy had managed to maintain a surprising amount of control over his forces and, having now met and spent time with him, Hekro could understand why.

“Good morning, my Lady.” Figo approached from the east, his levl at his hip. It was the custom of many noble Houses to wear their levls in such fashion, but most nobles had not stood on the frontlines of the war. Fewer still had witnessed the horrors that House Gebo stood against on a regular basis. The nobles of House Suwilo did but they were healers, not warriors, a distant presence in every conflict. Hekro had explained the advantages to Figo at length but the boy was still a creature of his upbringing – another decade or so on the border, Hekro thought, would change that for the better.

“And you, my Lord.” Hekro clasped the boy’s wrist, a casual and friendly show of dominance that Figo had never sought to contest. The boy took his place at Hekro’s side and looked out over the assembled forces that waited on the lip of a distant horizon, their mass looking like nothing so much as a sea of chaos.

“Do you think they’ll attack today?” Figo asked. Hekro looked in the boy’s wide silver eyes and earnest expression; the boy was so very eager to learn.

“At twilight, yes.”

“How can you tell?”

“Do you see the pinions, there, there, and there?” The boy nodded. “See how they move north to south? They wobble a little, yes, and they look like they’re just part of the crowd, but the Coeecian’s method of war is a complex architecture. The swarming mass of chaos only looks that way. In truth we face three separate armies that have all fallen under the command of a single warlord. If we can find him and kill him, that force will disperse.”

“You know all that just from their pennants?”

“Yes. Coeecians put great stock in their leaders and the favor of their gods, but their minds are soft from their reliance on superstition. Hence, they dress up their forces to remind themselves of who is on what side and what they are doing. There is a language to their horde, and I have learned to read it – which is why I know that there are three armies down there, that they do not like one another, and if we kill their leader they will fight among themselves and then disperse.”

“Only to reform somewhere else.”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. One thing at a time, Lord Figo.”

The boy nodded, studying the mass and memorizing the pinions that Hekro had pointed out. Hekro could have told him not to bother – the Coeecians were a superstitious people, changing the color and designs of what mattered according to which of their barbaric castes was ascendant at any given moment in time. Hekro was able to spot the leader’s campfire with only a little difficulty and judged their enemy to be of the Skie caste, a group of mountain dwellers as known for their arrogance and sense of entitlement as they were for the powerful storms they could summon.

Figo had met that warlord in personal combat but, like so many Vanir, he knew none of the details that defined the Coeecian swarm and so had let his enemy go. Figo’s scouts had spent some time within Hekro’s, the combined force able to learn that their enemy’s name was Jesam and that he had developed an obsession with Hekro’s young charge, a powerful lust for ownership that had rewritten his view of this campaign.

Jesam emerged from his tent, his white robe coated in dust, the lightning blue cloak on his shoulders hanging loose around his throat. He kept his black hair spiked and, as he saw Hekro, waved and offered an insipid grin as he moved towards the ashes of an abandoned campfire. Hekro scowled and crossed her arms, knowing the man was preparing some sort of ritual working and knowing that she was too distant to do anything about it. She stood still when the rain started, remaining still when the chill seeped into her bones. She did not react even when Jesam looked up and raised his hand in a mock greeting.

Turning on her heel, Hekro went back the way she came and settled into her quarters. They had the high-ground, their walls on a massive embankment that would keep the Coeecians from any sort of direct attack. Some of their magicians were capable of great wonders but such magicians had to be in eyesight to make use of their most potent rituals, a limitation which would put them within eyesight of the Vanir scientists, who could then complete the circuits of science to crush their enemies. It was, in Hekro’s opinion, a stupid and endless cycle that rendered both groups completely useless – the best the magicians and scientists could do was annoy their enemies, like what Jesam had done with his little working.

Hekro returned to her quarters with the intention of sleeping, leaving strict orders that she was to be awoken the moment the Coeecians did anything out of the ordinary. She was confident that her soldiers knew exactly what she meant. She walked into her room and stripped off the jacket all nobles wore when going into battle, a thick fabric interwoven with metal thread. The weight of it off her shoulders brought with it a dull ache that she ignored, her well-muscled torso covered in old scars. She took note of them all, remembering those who had died to leave proof of victory etched into her skin.

Manuind Berhagala. Ashaewi Manuund. Iwasund Berkenaund

She was awoken by a knocking at her door, her hand gripping the levl beside her before her mind was completely aware of her surroundings. Long vigils all along the Coeecian border had taught her that sleep was a luxury and coming back to the waking world without a weapon at hand could be a costly mistake. She blinked at the empty room, shrugged into her jacket and sheathed the levl across her back before walking back among her troops.

“Report.” She looked at the fidgeting Lord Figo while fastening the jacket closed; the blush along the boy’s cheeks was both flattering and bearing clear evidence of his youth.

“We thought that the Coeecians were using the rain as a distraction,” he began. “But it, uh, seems that they’ve been using the storm to erode the earth out from under the keep.” Hekro snapped to attention, looking at the boy and considering the applications.

The keep they lived in was the centrepiece of Vanir presence in Ashaewulo’sabberkena, a bastion that had stood since before Hekro was born and had provided haven, refuge, and staging point for the Vanir nation. It had allowed the Vanir, even in the leanest of times, to keep the Coeecians from encroaching further into Midgard, the home of the Vanir people. The loss of the keep would be devastating both strategically and moralistically, a truth that someone like Jesam would know.

Hekro finished straightening her jacket, strode outside and stood on the heavy walls. Figo followed, chattering on about logistics. Hekro ignored him as she crossed her arms and looked outside. The rain was so thick that she could only just make out the Coeecians down below, using their tools and fell trickery to erode the base upon which the keep stood, and she knew that Jesam had trapped them – for if they went out there they would be walking into a trap, but if they kept behind their walls the walls would crumble and the Coeecians would swarm over them and kill them all.

She explained this to Figo, trying to decide if there was a way out of Jesam’s little gambit. Figo wanted to go out and fight, confident of his ability to win, but Hekro held him in place with a look. There was more going on here, some plan that they did not see.

“Figo Jera!”

The cry caught them all off-guard. A moment later twelve arrows were fired from down below, each of them striking the battlements. No other volley was fired and even Hekro could see that the arrows were tied with messages around them, the paper treated to resist the strain of water. She strode to the edge of the wall and claimed the arrow, ignoring the warnings of Figo’s men. The Coeecians would not shoot someone in the act of retrieving a message; they considered it bad luck.

She untied the string around the shaft and unrolled the paper, looking at the girlish Coeecian script. The Vanir held the Coeecian written language in contempt for its complexity and facade of elegance, preferring the economy of their own written codes, and most Vanir nobles would have had no idea how to interpret Jesam’s message. Hekro was not so ignorant, though she did have trouble with the strange curves and loops that the Coeecians used for their inert written sigils.

My Darling Figo,

As much as I admire your persistence in resisting my advances, I have to admit that I’m finding the drudgery of our game growing a little old. You know I want you and you know that there is nothing that you can do to dissuade me from getting what I want. How many more of your people must die before you turn yourself over to me so that we can both sate our desires?

Oh, my lust, my lust… can you not see that what I’m doing is for the best? You are so precious, Lust, a treasure. I will keep you safe, lock you away like the most precious of gems. Surely this is what you crave because it is what I crave for you. How could you want anything else?

I’ve spotted you speaking and walking with that blond harlot. I want you to know that she will not stand between us much longer; my plans have nearly come to fruition. Soon, we will be together and you will be mine and all will be well.

Until then, my Lust, know that the seed I spill I do in your name,

Jesam of the Skie

“They’ve been sending arrows like that every couple of weeks,” Figo said, looking over Hekro’s shoulder. “Our ritualists claim that there is no magic about them, but there must be some meaning to this act… is it some sort of superstition?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly.” Hekro felt no guilt at the lie as she crumpled the paper and tossed it into the nearest fire. His knowing the full details of Jesam’s obsession would benefit no one.

A deep growl rumbled underneath them, the earth giving way under the deluge that assailed them. Hekro’s hand immediately went to her levl, the weapon drawn as she walked towards the sound and ordered the soldiers on those walls back. No Coeecian rope or ladder touched the battlements above the sound as Hekro ordered her country-folk into position. For long moments nothing happened, nothing more than rain tumbling down from on high, liquid shattering on stone.

Then the world screamed as mighty stone walls were dragged out of sight by simple entropy.

She did not flinch when those walls fell. She held her ground and Figo stood with her, his own levl held at the ready. She did not turn to see how much of her people’s resolve had broken with the wall, did not take her eyes from the gaping emptiness that waited before her, a threat, a promise, a sigh made real. She held her ground and she knew that those behind her did so only in honor of her strength.

When the Coeecians swarmed through, a horde of them bashing through like rats, Hekro lifted her levl had howled a warcry, leading her people forward to meet the enemy. Bones shattered and blood swept out in arcs as she struck, cutting a swath through the invaders as an answering cry rose behind her, the Vanir finding their courage and joining their attack.

Time passed. The rain continued. Her limbs felt heavy, her breath coming in long and painful gasps. For the moment no Coeecian dared approach her. She stood straight, taking a moment to assess the situation. Piles of the dead lay all around her, Vanir and Coeecian blood co-mingling an offering to Midgard below. She glanced around, knocking stones out of the air with her levl as she assessed the situation. The Vanir, from what she could tell, were winning.

Hekro’s knowledge of the Coeecian war machine allowed her to know what they were doing and how they were moving. A few shouted orders stymied the efforts of those they fought, stuffing their games before they ever took effect. She caught sight of Jesam in the crowd, holding one of the short blades his people favored, his cloak free of the gore that coated everything else. Hekro scowled at him, envious – she would be bathing for hours to get the blood out of her hair.

Jesam smiled at her and vanished into the crowd, safe behind the lines of his people. She grimaced and forced herself onward, heading towards the spot where he had been. If she could kill that one man, the Coeecians would retreat, fighting among themselves until they had another leader to guide them. She got to that point, a small group of her own soldiers following her as best they could as she cut down the cattle that tried to stand before her.

She caught sight of him again. He wasn’t looking for her, she saw, his eyes on the figure of his obsession – Lord Figo Jera. The boy was holding his own, a credit to a noble line that did not deserve such as he. He stood, levl and dryw drawn, fighting his enemies one at a time. Unlike the rest of them, Hekro saw, Figo was fighting one duel after another. He was being worn down, being left mostly unharmed. She could see what Jesam wanted to do and felt bile rise in her throat at the thought of it.

LiW 002

 

Pushing herself forward on limbs that were already screeching fatigue, she pressed through the crowd and broke past any fool that thought to stand in her way. She was halfway to Figo when she felt the blade enter her back and push through, steel exiting from her midriff. She spun, trying to backhand with her levl, but her killer ducked under the blow and used her movement and strength to make the wound he had inflicted upon her so much worse.

“I want you to know,” Jesam said, cradling her as the levl dropped from her fingers, “That I could never have done this without you. The Golden Champion, the Vanir who knows our ways. Did you ever think that perhaps the language of war could change? No?” He pressed his lips against hers, recoiling when she bit him and laughed when he tasted his own blood.

“Figo will stop you.” Her voice faltered but her glare did not.

“Doubtful.” Jesam smiled, his words slurring together in her ears. “He is a beautiful bauble, nothing more. Without his walls to protect him…?” His smile deepened. He left her there, among the corpses and the muck. She heard him shout out a challenge to Figo, demanding a duel to end the conflict. The boy, flush with the victories he thought he had won, accepted.

She tried to shout a warning but spat up blood, drowning herself. He had punctured her lungs with his blade. She could do nothing but lie there and die, listening as the beautiful Lord Figo was lost.

***

More is coming next week. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

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2843

God of Comics – Loki, Agent of Asgard

Books & Writing, Culture, God Of Comics, Reviews

August 20, 2015

The title was what drew me in.

Loki – Agent of Asgard. There was something appealing about that, the idea that every other power in the Marvel universe has entire agencies set up to spy on everyone else, to feed the, misinformation and carry out covert operations, and the Asgardians turned to Loki and said “this is what we want you to do.”

loki 001

Very self aware, this comic.

The mythos is what kept me. I’ve been calling this title part of the Mythic Marvel line, along with Angela and Thor, and this trinity has been among the best comics Marvel has ever published. The art in all three of them has been radically different and from everything else and one another and the stories, ye gods. This is what happens when three different writers of quality decide they have stories to tell.

Angela is about honor and obligation, about nature versus nurture, about faith and discovery. Thor is about heroism in a world that is more than black and white, and what a god owes his people. And Loki? Loki is about identity, about belonging, about change and how difficult it can be to change, and to explain the full impact of this comic you need to understand what came before it.

Loki is, traditionally, the God of Mischief in the Norse pantheon. He’s an agent of chaos that serves order, blood brother to Odin, and he solves more problems than he causes. He calls out the gods on their hypocrisy, and in this last aspect he came to the Marvel Universe to tweak Thor around a bit. Thor had become a hero, and so Loki became a villain.

It was supposed to be a roll, but it was one he became trapped in. He became the God of Lies, but he was also savvy enough to know that he was a comic book character and that he was trapped. Over the past decade, he’s done everything possible to escape that: kicked off Ragnarok, helped with the resurrection of the Asgardians, sacrificed himself to save everyone, and was reborn as an innocent child.

And then the child was caught and butchered by his past self – only not really. He thought this happened, but it didn’t, and good people that think they’ve become evil will often indulge in evils that leave villains terrified. Still, Loki rejected the evil definition set for him, and that brings us to the start of this series.

Odin has gone off into self-exile because he’s a prat, really. The All-Mothers of Asgard hire Loki to be their agent, and pay him with stories. Notably, they will erase one story of Loki’s villainy for every mission he carries out. With every erased story, he believes he can escape the definition that he was trapped in.

And this is amazing. We get Loki messing with the Avengers, Loki going on speed dates, Loki being generally awesome. We see Loki make friends with a woman named Verity Wells, we see Loki trying to make a life for himself. And we also see that the All-Mothers are secretly unwilling to let Loki be anything other than a villain.

See, people like known quantities. Even if you’re a toxic person and you change for the better, there are people that will prefer that you stay toxic simply because it means that they don’t have to adjust their thinking. So, when an Evil Loki appears, they work with him, too. Loki knows something is up and discovers what’s going on and is shocked by it, horrified.

“Why would you work with him?” Loki demands of the All-Mothers.

“You’re the only one who wants to change,” the All-Mothers reply. “The rest of us are comfortable.”

We learn that Evil Loki is our version, but from the future. See, he did it. He got rid of all the old stories, became a hero, and found acceptance – but the other Asgardians kept calling him the God of Lies. It didn’t matter who he had become, known of them would accept him for who he was. It poisoned him, drove him mad.

"What do you call it when you tie yourself up? Other than hot?"

“What do you call it when you tie yourself up? Other than hot?”

A friend of mine once told me, “If you do a thing for a thank you, you do it for the wrong reason. Act because you could not live with yourself if you did less.” It took me a long time to understand what he meant.

If you’re going to change you have to do it for yourself. If you change for others and they don’t acknowledge it – and there is always the chance that they won’t – then you’re going to crumble.

Evil Loki changed for the acknowledgment of others and when they didn’t give him what he wanted from them, he crumbled and became a villain. He came back in time to hurry the process of his becoming evil, but in the process he saved both himself and the him that was not that thing.

Like the Loki of old, he exposed the hypocrisies of everyone around him, unveiling the lies of the Asgardians as a whole before nearly destroying himself. He knew Secret Wars was coming because he knows he is a comic book character, and he nearly side-stepped the whole mess to continue his own narrative and became involved in one of the most heartfelt and interesting battles of self that has ever been committed to page.

I tear up every time I read this.

I tear up every time I read this.

Those of us that have been broken will understand. Those of that have been left alone know exactly what that one page means. It the hands of a lesser writer this would have been a physical fight, and the writer is even able to make a mockery of that concept. This is the perfect place to end this title and to show that Loki has evolved – not a God of Lies, or even a God of Mischief, Loki has become the God of Stories.

As good as this comic is, it wouldn’t have been possible without Kieron Gillan’s Journey into Mystery and Young Avengers. That was the fertile ground that this story grew from and you should check those comics out, too, but you don’t have to.

The writer of this series has been Al Ewing. He writes a host of Marvel comics right now and is one of the best writers they have right now, which is saying something: this is a company that employs Warren Ellis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron, Mark Waid, Marguerite Bennett, and Brian Michael Bendis, among others.

Ewing stands among them due to an incredible ability to draw upon continuity and character, weaving different aspects of the absurdly rich history of comics and ending up with something new, insightful, and fresh. His work elsewhere has been amazing, but this? Loki Agent of Asgard is a masterpiece, an opus of the storytelling craft, and it firmly places him among the greats.

Comics are a visual medium, though, and a comic with this sort of concept needs an incredible art team to capture the moments that matter. Lee Garbett captured every beat, broken or heartfelt or funny. His work with design, body language, and facial expression made this comic feel real, and the coloring of Antonio Fabela captured light and dark and those colors that Loki himself moves between. Even the lettering, by Clayton Cowles, goes towards furthering the story. Read the comic and you’ll understand.

And read this comic. Hunt down the trades and pass it on, because this is a story that needs telling and sharing, an epic worthy of the sagas and the bards of the ancient world. This is a story complex and tragic and triumphant, a story that will move the heart, warm it and chill it and warm it again. It is a story that will make you laugh and cry and think.

It’s a story that will haunt you, and it should. A story that you can talk about, and share with friends.

Thank you, Al Ewing, Lee Garbett, Anotnio Fabela, and Clayton Cowles, for telling it, and thank you, Marvel Comics, for letting them.

We can’t wait to see what’s next.

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717

Fiction – Love is War 03:00:01:01

Books & Writing, Short Fictions

August 14, 2015

So, way back when, some rather good books were published a page at a time in newspapers. The Sherlock Holmes series, the Count of Monte Cristo, and the Three Musketeers are all tales that got their start in this fashion, and we’d like to follow suit. Every week, we’re going to post something new for you to devour and read, with original art as a header, and then a collected version for purchase from our store when the book is complete. Questions? Comments? The writers are right here, and they’ll respond as they’re able. 

***

03:00:01:01

A storm was coming, the kiss of it cresting the horizon.

Lady Veskur Wyrd watched the gathering clouds for a time, trying to remember if the storm was something she had called. She did not remember and could not think of a reason why she might have, but then she had been very busy. Twitching, she pulled the blanket draped over her shoulders tighter and stood barefoot on the balcony of her lonely keep, her brown hair catching in the wind. She did not remember the last time she had been outside, did not remember the last time she had slept, did not remember the last time she had left her laboratory.

If she had been prone to look in mirrors her appearance would have surprised her, the light in her eyes a stark contrast to the lines of fatigue etched into her flesh, the pale sallowness of her skin. As it stood, however, none of it mattered. She was allowing herself this small break only because she had discovered a miracle that she knew no one else would understand. Her nation claimed to be one of rational intellectuals but not a one of them could have understood what it was she had wrought.

Oh, she had tried to explain it to them. She had taken her numbers and theories into the cities owned and operated by the Great Houses, sat before their councils and nobles and shared everything she had spent her lifetime unraveling. They had accused her of madness and dismissed her with winks and knowing smiles, eager to have her on her way. She knew they considered her a joke, good enough to call upon when they needed a laugh. She accepted this, as she cared nothing for their opinions.

There were times, uncounted by both her and the rest of her people, when they would come to her to fix their problems. She would come, solve their troubles, and leave. No one took note of these moments, least of all the lady herself. She cared nothing for debt, obligation, or tie. The only thing that mattered to her were the studies she had devoted everything that she was to; all else was empty distraction, noise without meaning, and the only reason she ever went in the first place was to fulfill her family’s obligations to the Vanir so that they would leave her alone.

It began to rain, sky-tears touching her face and spilling down her high cheekbones. She took note of it and enjoyed the sensation, taking a few more minutes to stand there until she was drenched and shivering. It was information, being cold and wet, and she accepted it for what it was before retreating back inside and fixing herself a hot cup of tea and an even hotter bath. Warmth within and without eased tensions that had been building in her for weeks, a gentle drowsiness seeping into her every pore. A simple application of her knowledge kept the water steaming. She drifted into oblivion, woke when the mood took her, dressed and went back to her one true joy.

She had been forced to take up weaving and metallurgy when none of her family wanted to help her with what they thought of as her wasteful efforts. They had moved her out into the wilds and forgotten about her, granting her the solitude she had needed from them almost by accident. She had shown anyone who so much as feigned interest on those rare visits the glove she had made. She tolerated their blank stares and hollow praises.

The glove had bits of wood woven on the outskirts of the fabric. She had found that only ash, yew, elm, alder, cedar, or rowan could shape the energies she had bound in the way she wished. Metal had been woven within the glove to channel those same energies, taking from flesh and moving it to the world outside the body. Gold, silver, or copper, exclusively – nothing else would accomplish the task.

The Earl of her House had seen her glove and asked her to explain why she had placed the Crest of High House Wyrd on the back of the palm. She had tried to explain it to him but he had just stared at her blankly, not understanding though willing enough to indulge her. She had a soft spot for the old man and felt a kinship to him she did not feel for any of the others; he had built their House from nothing and she, if they would just let her alone long enough, would change the world in his name.

She slipped the glove over her left hand and felt the energies coursing within and frowned. Her problem was one of proof – how could she explain that she had changed the world when the changes that she made had always been, particularly when considering something as subtle as the possibilities of greatness or failure within a lifetime? She had used the science she had invented to further her own understanding of things the rest of her nation could not even begin to fathom.

It was only a matter of time, she knew, before that understanding drove her irreversibly insane.

Her family had left her a single servant, a man of some passing handsomeness whose name she could never quite remember. She knew that her parents hoped that she would take an interest in him and for their sakes she had tried. He had ended up striking her as pointlessly dull and she had as little to do with him these days as possible, ignoring the sounds that came from his rooms when he brought yet another lover to her home and pretended to be some minor lordling. If they knew of his games the rest of her family would have had him killed; she politely ignored him and appreciated the same courtesy paid in kind.

But now that man was standing on the edge of her laboratory. He wouldn’t say anything until she acknowledged him, knowing how irate she could become when she was torn from her work, but his eyes weighed upon her. She was tempted to use her sciences on him in that moment but held back, knowing better than anyone else ever would the responsibility that came with knowing what she knew. She sighed and slipped the glove off her hand and looked up at him with polite impatience.

“There’s someone here to see you.”

“Who is it? Family?”

“No.”

He seemed uncertain of what else to say so she sighed and followed him to the modest greeting room that was mostly used by him. There was a figure there that she had heard of but never met. Handsome, coal black hair and beautiful eyes, slender elegant features with just a hint of roughness around the edges. He wore clothing that was entirely out of place with the Vanir people but that nonetheless suited him, draping down and around his slim build. The most notable thing about him, however, were the dark and feathery wings that rose from his shoulders, stretching out like clouds to flick the water off.

“Lady Wyrd, greetings,” the man said. “Do you know who visits you?”

“Your name is Lloykiel,” Wyrd said, staring at the figure, grimacing as she stumbled over the complexities of his first syllable. He nodded. There were tales of him, fables that her family had shared regarding some long ago war. He was said to have been involved in that war, somehow, and it was said that he had taken an interest in the war that her people were now enmeshed in with their uncivilized neighbors, the Coeecian people. No one she had spoken to knew what that interest was, only that he was out there and a part of it.

“So I am known here,” Lloykiel sang. That was another thing she’d heard, that he sang instead of spoke. There was beauty in the sound and she did not begrudge him this even if she did find it passing strange.

“What do you want?”

“I have a question.” He paused and stretched his wings out, accepting some steaming liquid that her servant brought to him. “It is about your studies.”

“What do you know of them?

“Only what you claim.” He paused, mulling over the cup in his hand. “There is use for you, a call that will credit you, give you acceptance.”

“Really.” Even she could hear the disinterest in her voice.

“I tell you the truth,” Lloykiel smiled. “To the south of here, battle. Use what you have learned.”

He finished his beverage and left, toasting her briefly before going. She considered his words at length and finally decided that while he had been interesting, his message was not. She returned to her laboratory and her work, noting equations that would aid her in her quest for discovery. She lost track of time, ignoring the world around her completely until her servant ran into her room, ignoring all sense of decorum.

“Yes, what is it?” she demanded. He merely stared at her.

“The C-Coeecians,” stammered the man. “Jesam. They’ve broken past the southern border, a surprise raid. They’re nearly here. They aren’t far from here, you can see them in the distance without strain.”

Cursing under her breath, Wyrd slipped on her glove and went to the top of her tower, throwing a blanket around her shoulders. There was wind and the storm she had enjoyed before and just as her servant had told her there was an army of Coeecians chasing down a small group of her people. She studied the Coeecians with some passing interest, having never seen one before.

Where her people were orderly and stringent, the Coeecians were dirty and chaotic, a mess of lines and flesh. Not one of them was dressed like another and they charged forward with less sense than beasts, much of their flesh exposed, their weapons poorly made and rusted and dented. She had heard they had a religion andthat they believed in some sort of higher power, but she had scoffed that any human people could believe in something so infantile – but looking at them now, she would have believed them capable of any sort of idiocy.

She scowled as she noticed her people running towards her tower. They would expect her to shelter them, distracting her from her studies while the animals on their heels battered at her walls. Her own people would attempt some sort of defence and would try and fail to engage her in conversation. They would go through her things looks for weapons. They would go through her things. It was all too much of a bother for her to want to deal with.

Though the glove she had made had been meant for quiet weavings, there were other more blunt uses that she could put it to. She had used a base bit of knowledge to keep herself warm in the bath, but what she crafted allowed for her to magnify that power a hundredfold with a quickness that everyone else had told her was impossible. When she had tried to prove her discoveries they had called her a liar and accused her of trickery. Unsure how to deal with their accusations, she’d retreated to the home they had given her and locked herself in her laboratory, gotten back to work.

It was her fault. She should have known better.

But now, looking out and over the plains below her and the two ravening hordes that were charging her home, she sighed and realized that she would have to put her theories to pragmatic use. Destructive power had always been the preferred sign of the Vanir’s strength and she called on that power now, forcing the unseen forces that coursed through every living body into the wires in her glove, into the wood and the etchings she had carved into them. Silver and elm, that was her preference. The sigil attached to the glove began to spin, light and lightning spilling forth and carving a place in the storm.

– a web woven of her will reaching far beyond the skies and into the black sea that the world itself swam through – debris floated there, drawn by a power called gravity by some and love by others, a circle around the world of endless yearning – Veskur Wyrd took one of those bits of rock and ice, pulling upon it with her will, bringing it closer to the earth, pulling it to where those that wished to disturb her were coming – this is what was meant to be, had always been, and none could dispute the claim –

11840634_752889074821131_139674472_oShe heard their screams over the wind when the gift her will had summoned came into view. Some among the Coeecians, she assumed, would know that someone among the Vanir had to be calling upon such power. She saw some of them falter and look for some sign of whoever it was that had brought forth the approaching cataclysm, hoping to destroy the primitive techniques they would have employed instead of the more civilized approach she had created.

One of them realized what was happening. She saw him stare at her and point, he still too far distant for her to see anything else before the end claimed them all. Her chosen weapon smothered them, the impact knocking her from her own feet even at this distance. She rose and looked towards the point of impact, but the cloud of dust and snow following the wake of devastation knocked her down again. She hissed in irritation, both from the growing bruise on her thigh and knowing that her laboratory would have suffered from the blast and been torn into disarray. She managed to stand again eventually, her leg protesting as she looked out and over what had once been a fertile plain and was now a blasted valley.

The people of her nation had survived, caught on the edge of the blast. They had been knocked to the ground and looked battered, but none the worse for wear. They were all looking at her and she could see the awe on their faces and knew that they would gather their courage and one of their number would be chosen to come and speak with her.

More time would be lost as she ran through the same explanations and the same condescending idiocy. Growling, she stormed into her tower and screamed for her servant, his trembling presence finally coming clear to her.

“Go out to those imbeciles and tell them I am not accepting company at this time,” she hissed. “Give them whatever supplies they need and then send them on their way. If you have dire need me, I’ll be in my laboratory.”

He may have stumbled over a response; she was not certain, did not care and did not stay to listen. She howled when she entered the only room in her keep that was important and saw the mess she had made of things. Taking a deep breath, she considered the clutter. As bad as the mess was, it did not appear as if anything had been damaged and the time spent cleaning would still be less than the time it would have taken to deal with the siege that would have happened otherwise.

Muttering under her breath, she took the glove from her hand and started re-stacking every last detail that had fallen.

***

You can read the next chapter by clicking this sentence. If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people.

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1248

God of Comics – the Punisher

Books & Writing, God Of Comics, Reviews, Uncategorized

July 24, 2015

The Punisher is a strange character.

On paper, it looks simple enough – a war veteran named Frank Castle witnesses his family get killed as collateral damage in a shout out between rival gangs and swears revenge. Some depth was added to the character during the excellent Punisher Max run, which gave Frank some layers, and that was good. Hell, that was excellent. It’s one of the best comics out there, what with the terrible sense of grime that coats the whole of it, and it’s utter lack of any other Marvel character.

See, there’s an argument that Frank couldn’t work in the Marvel Universe. It’s the same argument that people level against the likes of Hawkeye and Black Widow, that a non-powered character – and especially this one – couldn’t operate in a world with powered heroes and criminals, that he would be easy to hunt down and either capture or kill.

And you’d have to, wouldn’t you? If you’re a hero, the Punisher looks like a mass-murdering monster, with at least a four-figure kill count stretching from Vietnam to the modern era. He has, all by himself, filled cemeteries of criminals. If you’re a villain, priority one has to be stopping the guy that’s killed thousands of your friends and henchmen and will put a bullet through you if he ever gets the chance.

Here’s where we get to the problem, because what is the Punisher’s power?

He’s good with guns. That’s it.

At least, that what it looks like on the surface. If you stop to think about him about him, though, a whole new vista opens up. He was a black operative on Vietnam, trained to be one of the most lethal soldiers in one of the most terrifying wars this world has ever known, and he’s done nothing but fight ever since. He’s refined his technique, dedicated himself to fighting and nothing else.

Iron Man is a rich guy in power armor with no formal combat training. Spider-Man gets by on spider-sense and heightened reflexes. The X-Men are a civilian militia with a lot of practical experience.

Frank knows more than all of them combined when it comes to the preparation and application of violence. His power is that he’s been fighting for so long that he can’t do anything else and that there is nothing else to him.

Punisher 004

And not a weakness of whatever it is Frank has become.

He’s not even human any more, not in any way the rest of us could understand. He’s moved into some weird mental place where he exists all by himself, occasionally touching someone’s life or, more likely, ending it. He’s a force of nature pretending to be a man.

So when it was announced that Nathan Edmondson was going to be doing a Punisher series, I was interested. Good Punisher stories are hard to find, but when they’re good they’re great. Nathan’s written some interesting military-based characters in the past (Who is Jake Ellis?, Olympus), so that seemed like a good fit.

Then I read the solicit, which said something about the Punisher going out to Los Angeles, and how was he going to operate so far out of his element, which the solicit seemed to think was New York. I remember looking at this quizzically for one simple reason: Frank’s element is killing people. Location is incidental; he’ll know as much as he can about the terrain long before he gets there, and he’ll pick up the lay of the land quickly. That’s kind of what he is.

When the first issue came out I picked it up a little nervously, thinking that we were going to see Frank making mistakes because of the territory, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the various criminals assumed he’d be out of his element, and they suffered for it. It was fun and well written, with everyone showing the right amount of terror of Frank and Frank out-thinking them as best he was able.

Because, as dangerous as Frank is, he’s still only a man physically. He’s got human reflexes and endurance, is prone to exhaustion and incremental pain, and as likely to make mistakes as anyone. When the gangs call in Electro – who Marvel really began pushing to coincide with the last Spider-Man movie – even Electro was scared of him, and ready to run away rather than stay in the same state with him.

And that’s all well and good. Really. It seemed like a good Punisher tale about Frank going on summer vacation, heading out to LA to get some sun and kill some people. It was intelligent and everyone felt like people, with us getting a police officer character and getting to see how Frank’s actions affected her, specifically, and the rest of LA in general. The criminals came across as people making the best of their situation, and no one was made to hold the idiot ball. That counts for a lot, in any story, and especially in one that focuses on people over powers.

Pictured: In his element.

Pictured: In his element.

The story continued, and as it went on we got into the real heart of this. There were hints of something larger going on, and Frank got wind of whatever it was and started killing himself to answers. He took a trip down to a Mexican prison, killing everyone on his way out, and then kept the murder going on his way to the truth.

A gang war broke out and martial law was declared in LA, with Frank heading back as things continued to go wrong. We learned that the Howling Commandos – Nick Fury’s old unit from World War II, and the best active soldiers in the Marvel Universe – were after Frank. For reasons. We spent some time with them, getting to know them. We got to see how intelligent they are in the field, how carefully the plan and how skill they are.

If Marvel decides to have Nathan Edmondson write a Howling Commandos comic I’ll be all over that.

So, keeping in mind how skilled and efficient the Howling Commandos are, we get to see that even they’re taken aback when they’re ordered to go after Frank. Being soldiers and professionals means they’re willing to do it for the good of the country, but the respect they give even the idea of going after Frank shows exactly how terrifying he really is.

Punisher 005

They snipered him through a building use technology Frank didn’t know existed. It was either that or nuke the city.

It gets more complex, though. See, the Howling Commandos only get involved with things on orders, and usually around the world. Someone high up the chain has to want them to conduct operations on domestic soil, someone with a vested interest in keeping things violent in LA.

Here’s what we learn: the politics behind everything that has happened. Simple, right? And silly. We’re told never to talk politics in polite society, as if the various causes that form laws are somehow dirty and beneath notice. The truth is that there are few things that we should be discussing more, and it’s a truth that the young are adopting and claiming for their own as they come to understand how corrupt the politics they’ve inherited are.

And comics? Comics have always been a means of exploring different political causes, all the way back to their inception. The Punisher has always been about the lost, about how broken things can get, and about how crime both literally and metaphorically steals life. These are tales of societal and cultural entropy.

The Punisher is a rage-filled tragedy.

Frank is a character who stares into the face of every human evil and says no, because he’s already lost everything.

The brilliance of the Edmondson run is a sudden shift in scale.

Frank fights the symptoms of that corruption, the evil that comes from disenfranchising entire swaths of people, of forcing them into ghettos and feeding them drugs, of institutionalized racism and unchecked greed writ large. He fights against generations of criminals who come from generations of victims, the logical end result of a meat grinder society.

The Punisher goes after murderers, thieves, and rapists. He targets those organizations that are undeniably criminal, but not the white color criminals that destroy countries, that bankrupt nations, that cause the symptoms that he’s so effective at fighting. He is, in reality, nothing more than a painful bandage that does nothing to actually solve the problems he thinks he’s fighting.

Here, Frank finds himself trailing the cause of the symptoms he fights. He finds himself going to Washington DC, find himself in the office of an American Senator who put in motion a plan to incite riots and gang violence in Los Angeles so that martial law would have to be declared. The idea was to make money for both the military and a number of corporations, and the people that live in LA, well, they’re acceptable losses for the profits that will come as a result of this plan.

The senator in question is not afraid of Frank, because he hasn’t directly murdered anyone. He’s never held a knife or a gun outside of war time, if at all, and he’s certainly not going to go mug any one person. He has, however, played an indirect part on the deaths of hundreds in this political decision alone, and he admits that he’s done this sort of thing before and will do it again. This is what senators do, serve their corporate masters using whatever excuses they need to sleep at night, and the rest of the world can burn provided these senators get their kickbacks.

Punisher 000You want to talk about people that aren’t human anymore?

This is an evil that is above Frank. He can’t kill this senator and can’t fight the corruption that is causing the evils he fights every single day. They are, tragically, above and beyond him. He ends up facing off with Captain America after having this realization, and passes all this information along to Cap, but whether or not that will actively change anything in the Marvel Universe is questionable: Secret Wars came and derailed that story the same way it did everything else.

What we take away from this is a simple truth: violent revolution is all well and good, but nothing changes when you confront symptoms instead of causes. The simplest observable outcomes of an action are not the root action themselves, and without an intelligent look at why an action is happening, that action will continue to happen indefinitely.

For all his skill and lethality, Frank accomplishes very little. He’s a part of the very problem he thinks he’s fighting, another manifestation of the drama that is caused by the politics and greed that hover above him and every single one of his victims, and all of their victims, and so on, and so forth. No other comic has ever looked at the utter futility of what Frank has become like this one has, but Frank reacts predictably to this truth:

He heads back to LA, back to the riots that are now being blamed on him.

There are symptoms to fight, and that’s what the Punisher does.

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618

Nerdcouver Book Review – Hexed The Sisters of Witchdown

Books & Writing, Culture, nerdcouver, Reviews, Videos

July 23, 2015

Aaron and Jenna talk Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown by Michael Alan Nelson.

Living Myth Magazine spoke with author Michael Alan Nelson, and you can watch that here.

Nerdcouver is on the Facebooks.

Jenna is @novavanderwolf

Aaron is @lastswann

Nerdcouver is @nerdcouver

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2067

God of Comics – Hawkeye

Books & Writing, Culture, God Of Comics, Reviews

July 16, 2015

Hawkeye is one of the strangest comics to ever come out of the big two.

This isn’t a knock on its quality – we’re doing a full-on God of Comics on this title, and we’re doing it because this comic is amazing – but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that this title did a lot of things that were very strange to Marvel or DC Comics style thinking.

It’s hard to imagine a comic where people share a name, for example. There’s been various comic stories based on the battle of identity, and that’s not even the first place this title diverges from everything else. Hawkeye stars two people that claim that name, presented as equals for the whole of the series.

hawkeye 002

Total equals. Yep.

Clint Barton and Kate Bishop are both presented as equals, Clint with more experience and Kate with her life much more together. Both call one another Hawkeye and playfully riff on one another for the whole twenty-two issue run. Their relationship as friends and partners without a hint of romance does a lot to tie the whole book together, and is a large part of what makes these comics as good as they are.

I’m coming at this disjointed, but with purpose – Clint Barton is a disjointed man in these pages, and this comic confronts that head on. He’s an archer and tactical genius who is skilled enough to hang around with super soldiers and genius millionaires and gods. He’s a child who ran away and joined the circus and made a good run of things, and this comic is all about what he does when he’s not an Avenger.

Which turns out to be crime, mostly, perpetuated against criminals.

Clint steals the rights to his apartment building from an East-European Mafia, which goes about as well as you’d expect. They keep coming after him, which gives him a constant enemy that, while not-superpowered, never stops being a threat.

Hawkeye 006

“Seriously, bro. Seriously.”

He does this to save the people he lives with, and ends up becoming the building manager on top of everything else. Half the comic feels like community building, with the reader becoming familiar with the people Clint hangs around with that are just folks, and when one of them dies about halfway through the story, it’s horrifying. We know that character is never coming back, that the price of that character’s life was bought because of who Clint is.

And who is Clint? Clint is a mess, a man thoroughly invested in the moment who is not good at long term planning or weighing the consequences of his actions. He’s very much about who he is and what he’s doing right now, and he figures whatever is coming can wait until he gets there.

Hawkeye 005

They’re good for each other.

Likewise, Kate Bishop has her own and equal arc, tied into not only Clint’s special brand of madness, but her maturation as a hero, detective, and person. She comes from an estranged rich background and we get to see the crux of that strangeness, a thing that Kate herself doesn’t understand at the beginning but will fully embrace by the end.

Kate also earns herself an archnemesis in the form of Madame Masque, a terrifying woman best known for putting Tony Stark through the ringer. We get to know some more of Masque as a person and see just how much influence she has over the underworld, ranging from the Kingpin to the various wealthy elite that creep around the shadows of the Marvel Universe.

She takes Kate’s existence personally, the things she tries to do are chilling – and Kate’s ultimate victory over her is both thrilling and hilarious and perfectly in character. She’s learned a bit too much from Clint, really, and his personality and viewpoint is affecting her as much as hers is affecting him.

Also, there is pizza dog.

Hawkeye 000

An entire detective story is told from Pizza Dog’s perspective, and it is glorious.

Here’s where we start looking at the trick of his story; at it’s heart, Hawkeye is a coming of age story, a man-child and a young woman both fully coming into their own through sheer talent and stubborn determination. There’s a host of writers that could have told this story and done it well, but this is a series of comics that excelled.

The question is, how? The story is good, certainly, but it isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. X-O Manowar got the God of Comics treatment for the breadth of theme that it embraces and then digs deep within, and Coffin Hill was recognized for the complexity of its narrative flow. Hawkeye does something completely different by making the style of the story an extension of the substance.

A lot of writers look at style as flourish, something to add spice to the meat of what it is they’re working on. Comics are unique in that their storytelling relies overmuch on style, which is to say art, which makes them a visual medium that is quite unlike anything else. Never in the history of comics has their been a title that played with that concept quite like this one.

The second issue, for example, looks at what it’s like to be an archer. Take a look:

Hawkeye 001

This one simple page allows us to understand what it’s like for Clint and Kate whenever they have a bow in hand. It gives us a sense of time, motion, and breath. We can begin to understand, on a visceral level, that the way both of them view the world is fundamentally different from how we view the world, while still being imminently relatable.

Hawkeye 007

“Aw, Coffee, no.”

Writer Matt Fraction had to have a world of trust for his artist, David Aja, to explain that with nothing but artistic presentation. It plays with moments, with heartbeats and words and body language, and it turns two people that look strictly human into people that deserve to be hanging shoulder to shoulder with super soldiers and genius millionaires and gods.

That gimmick used once would be enough for most comics, but Matt and Dave aren’t willing to stop there. We get into the silliness and utility of gimmick arrows, an entire episode from the point of view of a dog, a recap issue that is also a Christmas special cartoon, an entire issue in ASL when Clint goes deaf.

I’ve sold people on this comic just by telling them that Clint is deaf and uses ASL to communicate from time to time. Parents of deaf children will buy this comic just for that, so that their kids have someone to look up to and inspire them.

Hawkeye

They did an entire comic like this.

The amount of creativity at play in this book, the noirish elements, the inherent silliness of two archers standing strong against every possible odd while being pretty odd themselves is every kind of win. The sketchy art allows for a surprising amount of depth and detail, and there’s more to discover in expression and body language every time this comic is read.

It’s charming and the building blocks for one of the best buddy-teams in comics. It’s spawned a Deadpool / Hawkeye crossover that had some of the best moments in any modern Deadpool comic (which is saying something) and inspired a spin-off series by Jeff Lemire (and we’ll be getting back to him sooner rather than later). It’s been one of Marvel’s best comics for the past few years, a frequent winner of our weekly Top 5 Comics, and it deserves all of your attention.

Hawkeye is magic. It’s everything that comics can be, that weird nebulous region that embraces the inherent strangeness of the medium with some superhero elements and some noir elements and some heist elements, drawing from all without ever being clearly defined as anything but itself.

Hawkeye stands on its own, on its own terms, and we cannot recommend it enough.

Hawkeye 008

End the stand off. Read this comic. It will make you a better person.

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1014

God of Comics – Coffin Hill

Books & Writing, God Of Comics, Reviews

July 10, 2015

There’s a rather good book called Wise Man’s Fear. In it, a musician plays an incredibly difficult piece of music while acting as though it’s nothing particularly taxing, then plays a very simple piece of music as if it were an impossible accomplishment. It’s a performance on multiple levels – those that appreciate music can listen to the tune and enjoy it just for that, but any other musician is going to look at this and know exactly the sort of skill they’re getting to witness.

I’m a writer. I’ve got a novel over here, and a bunch of others that’re raring to go. And I do this whole thing about qualitative storytelling, and enjoying good stories, and looking at why some stories work and some don’t. It’s one of the reasons we do a weekly top five comics over on twitter, so that we can spread the word on comics you might otherwise miss.

With all that in mind, we need to point out exactly what Caitlin Kittridge has done with Coffin Hill.

On the surface, this is a very simple story. An evil witch is burned at the stake, then uses magic to haunt the town that burned her through a bloodline curse. It’s nothing we haven’t see before – Hocus Pocus did this as a comedy, for example – but it’s the way in which this story is told.

What does your family tree look like?

What does your family tree look like?

We start with Eve Coffin, the latest of the descendants that have come to be known as the Coffin Witches, but we don’t join her at any particular point in her life. No, that would be too easy. Instead, we join her at three points in her life, drawing parallel narratives between her as a teenager, as a cop, and as a burn out.

The writing is good enough to give each narrative thread a unique feel, from the rebelliousness of youth to the hope of escape that comes with being a cop to the sense of crippling despair that follows that inability to escape. The art follows the writing, investing a manic energy into the first threat, a staid hyper-reality in the second, and a sense of resignation in the last. It’s in every line, the body language and inks that are used from one panel to the next, except when we need one thread to bleed into another or something otherwordly happens.

And otherworldly stuff does happen. Eve doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she’s young, and her dabbling ends up costing her so badly that she flees her home and goes to become a cop. Think about that for a moment; this is a young woman who is so badly frightened that police work in a slum, facing drug dealers and serial killers, seems like a safe alternative. And as we come to understand what happened to her, we agree with her decision.

She thinks if she can trap herself in the mire of the worst normality has to offer, she’ll somehow escape the curse she was born into. She can’t, of course – she’s drawn into a serial killer investigation that needs her to succeed, because the killer they’re hunting is something of a witch, too. She needs to draw on the power she’s forsaken not just to catch the murderer she’s hunting, but to survive the attention that is drawn to her because of it.

We know she catches the killer, and we know the cost. We can see it in her face in the future, the irrepairable damage that is caused by running away from your problems. She’s drawn back home, where she has to face the consequences of her actions, and finds that they’ve only grown worse in her absence.

Running away solves nothing, not really. Whatever you’re running from is either going to catch you when you’re finally exhausted, or grow more powerful without you there to stop it.

This is only the first arc.

It’s maddening, how complex and how well this story is told. Snippets of information revealed in one thread of time that give weight to the others, going both forward and back. We can see where hubris and disbelief leads to, and we can see what it takes to refind faith not in magic, but in self. It’s some of the best writing you’re going to find in a horror comic, and, yes, this is horrifying.

There’s a sense of dread that hovers around every character in this book, regardless of when they are. Terrible things lurk just out of sight, and it’s hard to tell who has it worse – the people that almost know what’s going on or the ones that are entirely ignorant. There’s no escaping what’s just out of sight in any event, so the question is would you rather not really understand what’s coming for you or live, unaware, until whatever is coming, comes. Both options are terrible, but they’re the only ones available.

We get inversions of common horror tropes, examinations of escapism and empty faith and the cost of belief. We look at love in all its permuations, as friends and family and lovers, and we see how love can be corrupted and used as a weapon, but also how it can heal and make people stronger. There’s balance here. Everything feels real, regardless of how insane the events might be.

As the story goes on it becomes more complex, again and again and again. We delve into more points of when, following the childhood of Eve’s estranged mother and coming to understand why she’s become so aloof and crippled and the distance that separates the two of them. We see what the original Coffin Witch did to kick this whole thing off, and the terrible vengeance she’s enacted on the town that bears her name, the town she cursed before she died.

She also made a really creepy house for her kids.

On the plus side, she made a really creepy house for her kids.

It’s an incredible piece of work, and here’s the trick: it looks simple. The way it flows from one point in time to the next, the way the story handles revelation and character building is so easy to follow that you could swear you’re reading a child’s primer. There’s no hesitation, no confusion about who you’re following or when you’re following them even as the story spirals ever deeper into history and characterization.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how much time and thought had to go into building the structure of this narrative, to measure out information and when to dole it out for the most possible punch. It’s heady and thought-provoking and a goddamn masterpiece, but it’s so easy to follow that you don’t even notice how complex it is until you take the time to think about it.

If you’re just looking for a good horror story, you can read this and put it down and be done with it. It’ll give you the chills you’re seeking, give you engaging characters and that slow creeping fear that the best horror stories craft and the worst try to replace with jump scares. It’ll come across as really good, great campfire material maybe, a story on par with the old Clive Barker or John Carpenter movies. Hellraiser. Prince of Darkness. That sort of thing.

On the other hand, if you are Clive Barker or John Carpenter, you can enjoy Coffin Hill on an entirely different level. You can look at this story and pull it apart, take a look at what was done where and understand why. You can appreciate this tale the same way you might appreciate a gourmet meal, something crafted together with care and thought and diligence. You can internalize the why this story is told and apply some of the devices to your own writing, and become a better writer for it.

And the artwork…! This is a comic carved from shadows. I remember hearing about a cartoon where the artwork started with black backgrounds, and added color. That’s what this artwork feels like: Inaki Miranda and Eva de la Cruz started with absolute darkness and added the bare minimum of color needed to drive everything forward.

This gives the impression of light being terrified of what’s happening in these pages. This isn’t to say that the artwork is dark or hard to follow. It isn’t. It’s lush and vibrant, almost a rebellion against the terror writ large on every page. It’s just as complex as the writing demands it to be, and it’s a large part of why this comic is as powerful as it is.

In brief? This is one of the best horror comics of the modern era, a complex look at the cost of bloodline curse and the horrors that come with it, framed by gorgeous artwork that does everything that it can to enhance the power of the narrative.

Coffin Hill is as enchanting and haunting as the best grim faerie stories, and we can’t recommend it enough.

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775

Qualitative Storytelling – Structure

Books & Writing, Culture, Opinion

July 6, 2015

So, a few weeks ago we were talking about qualitative storytelling.

We promised that this was something that we were going to get back to, and we meant it. There’s too many bad stories out there and everyone seems happy to jump on board and point out the bad, but there’s precious little about how to actually tell a story properly.

It’s great to be able to talk about what isn’t a good story, but criticism should aim to improve the craft of the person that is creating whatever it is that’s being criticized. I know that last sentence was wordy, but it’s important to separate the art and artist from both a critical and creative standpoint.

So, again, this isn’t going to be an attack on creatives or the creative process. What this, and the articles to follow, aim to be is a study of how story is told. That’s it. That’s the disclaimer. We good? Great.

"so much great. Look at the intensity of all this great."

“So much great. Look at the intensity of all this great.”

Structure is one of those things that looks intuitive right up until you start writing. This is the bare-bones blueprint, the layout that determines what action happens where and what characters progress and when, if any. This essay isn’t about action or character, though, it’s simply about structure.

Typically, structure falls into three acts. The first act introduces the setting and characters, the second act has those characters seek something within that setting, and the last act has them either succeed or fail. That’s it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

To that end, let’s take a look at two of the Mad Max movies as examples of this being done. We’re running with the Road Warrior and Fury Road.

Road Warrior begins with Max on the road, fighting people from his car. We’re introduced to the character and the violence of his world, and then a secondary character, a gas refinery, and a horde of maniacs that want access to that refinery.

Fury Road begins in similar fashion, with Max being hunted by the villains out in the desert. He’s captured and taken back to what passes for their civilization, where we’re given just enough information to realize that there is a wider world at play here and that some people are trying to leave that civilization.

Both movies introduce their characters and their worlds quickly and efficiently. There’s enough small details in both that we’re led to believe that there are larger forces at play, but they’re so far beyond the comprehension or agency of the main character that they serve only to bring us deeper into this world that Max doesn’t truly care about, but we do.

Why does Lord Humungous keep his gun in that case? Why has Immorten Joe turned himself into a literal cult of personality? Why the Doof Warrior? Max doesn’t care, but these other characters clearly do and it gives their world a sense of depth that helps transition from the first act to the second.

In the Road Warrior , Max realizes that he’s running out of gas and would like a top up. Doing so means working with the people in the gas refinery, helping them so that they’ll help him. In the meantime, the Horde lurks outside, looking for any sign of weakness, and the people in the refinery realize that they need to get out.

On the Fury Road, Max escapes imprisonment and manages to capture – before being captured by – a group of women who are running from the people that originally captured him. The mutual desire of all involved to escape gets them all on the same side, and they flee together from an army that is chasing them.

Health care was offered by the cult, but only to members.

Health care was offered by the cult, but only to members.

The desires of both movies revolve around flight or acquisition. The people in the refinery want to take their gas and get away from the horde. Lord Humungous wants the gas in the refinery. The women want to escape from Immorten Joe. Immorten Joe wants to father perfect sons to take his place when he dies.

Max becomes a catalyst in his stories by wanting both flight and acquisition; it’s a desire to get something that gets him into trouble and his desire to get away that costs him everything.

As the stakes surrounding that end goal ramp up, we move from the second to the third and final act. This is where people ultimately get or do not get whatever it is that they’re after.

In the Road Warrior, the people in the refinery get Max to drive away with the gas they’ve refined. He’s chased by the horde, who he eventually ends up killing, only to find out that the people in the refinery used him as a decoy – the truck he’s been given has nothing in it, and now that he’s killed the horde they’ve abandoned him.

In Fury Road, we learn that the destination that the former slaves were running to has been destroyed. With no other choice, they had back in the direction they came, hoping to claim it for themselves. Immorten Joe chases, still wanting what he views as his, and is ultimately consumed by his need to dominate and destroy. The women get what they want and Max moves on.

See how simple that looks? Here’s where things get tricky: most structure have an overlay that can best be summed up as yes-no-yes or no-yes-no. Yes-no-yes is when a story or character starts in a good place, moves into a place of challenge, and then recovers to try and get things back on track or improve them. No-yes-no is when a story or character starts in a bad place, moves into a better one, and then through hubris, circumstance, or ambition, destroys what they’ve built and ends up either the same or worse than when they started.

There are exceptions – both no-no-yes stories and yes-yes-no stories exist, in addition to every other permutations of those two words in three places. The thing of it is, they rarely work as stories for the main characters or the main story. If someone starts in a bad place and goes good, then continues to go good, well, why didn’t the story end? If someone starts in a good place and then crumbles, do we really need to see them fall all the way to the end?

MM RR 002

Pictured: Reliable narrator.

Sometimes, these subversions work on their own, but that’s rare. Instead, subversions work best when paired with the classic yes-no-yes or no-yes-no scenario.

This overlay applies to both the plot and the main characters within a given story.

For example, in the Road Warrior, Max is in a no-yes-no overlay. He starts off alone and is in a place where he’s barely surviving. He’s running out of resources, so when he finds the refinery and is able to build a connection with those people, his life improves. This is the yes part of the story. By the end, though, Max has been betrayed, has no means of finding the people that betrayed him, and has lost even the few resources he had at the beginning of the film.

Meanwhile, the people in the refinery have a yes-no-yes overlay. They were able to create a relatively comfortable life for themselves in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They had food, gas, and power, so this defintely falls into the category of a yes, right up until Lord Humungous and his horde show up. They find themselves trapped, and are in the no part of their story when we meet them. Through Max and clever planning, however, they’re able to escape with their lives and their gas, and ultimately get everything they want.

Finally, Lord Humungous finds himself in a chaotic wasteland and tries to impose order upon in. We join him in the midst of the yes part of a no-yes-no overlay. His battle with Max will rob him of everything, including his horde and his life, as his arrogance, hubris, and monomania slowly chips away at the small amount of control he’s been able to impose upon the wasteland.

Oddly, the exact same overlay applies to the character types in Fury Road.

Max is still in a no-yes-no overlay. He’s been alone for so long he’s forgotten how to speak. He’s running low on resources and is captured fairly easily, is taken into a hellscape and only gets away due to flukey circumstances. While escaping, he makes a connection with several people, relearns how to speak, and finds comfort in the people around him. He follows their lead and finds purpose because of it, only to walk away from everything at the end. Max’s story ends on a no not because of hubris or arrogance, but for much more complex reasons; he knows that his presence is a poison that will taint the world the people he’s been fighting for are trying to make. So, once again, he leaves with nothing save the haunting memories of the connections he’s made. Max is and always has been a perfect tragedy.

Immorten Joe, likewise, is in a no-yes-no story. Like Lord Humungous, he’s grown in a mad post-apocalyptic world and tried to impose order upon it. Unlike Humungous, he’s largely succeeded. His ultimate goal to make human beings again, but because he’s not human ethically or morally, he’s incapable of reaching the heights of the old world and doesn’t see that; he wants to control the world, and his hubris, cruelty, and arrogance drives what he sees as his tools to flee from them. The initial no and yes parts of his story are off-screen, but we see the influence of them on and around him, and we get to watch the world he’s built fade into nothing. The entirety of Fury Road is the final no of his story, with the implication of what came before groping every event that happens on screen.

This guy learns a thing or to, though. We witness him.

This guy learns a thing or two, though. We witness him.

Finally, Furiosa and the women are part of a yes-no-yes overlay; their lives start in a terrible place and they escape from it, which is the yes part of their overlay. All their trials end up being for nothing, however, when they learn the place they’re running to has already been destroyed. The only place left for them is the one they fled from, so they had back to it and claim it for themselves after Immorten Joe’s megalomania finally brings him low. Their yes is the promise of a better world to come, though their success is not a part of the story as we got it.

And this brings us to another sort of overlay, one based on thematic and philosophical structure. I’m going to use the words damnation, redemption, and salvation to describe these thematic overlays, as they inform how the structure of a story is built and influence every aspect of the story thereafter. These terms are being divested of their religious overtones for the purpose of this essay; instead, we are focusing on their core meanings.

Overlays of damnation deal with destruction of a person, place, or thing. Whether through delusion, happenstance, or malice, the goals that drive the story eat away at those involved and end up in a bad place. Redemptive overlays force a character to take responsibility for their actions, and to make themselves or their world better for the choices they then make. Lastly, salvation based stories are ones in which characters abdicate their agency to an outside power, and through that power are saved.

The character of Mad Max is one thoroughly routed in damnation, regardless of the movie he’s in. He starts off every movie in straits more dire than the last, and ends every movie worse than when he started. He’s given up, lost himself to the violence and madness of his world, and he’s smart enough to know that he’s going to poison every situation he finds himself in. It’s why he walks away at the end of Fury Road; he knows he’s terrible and he knows he’s not getting better.

He has no delusions, unlike Immorten Joe or Lord Humungous. Joe’s goals are self destructive, because he’s self destructive; we meet him already falling apart, his death cult wanting nothing more than to die for their god. Once he’s dead, his children will tear whatever he’s built apart, and the religion he’s crafted will spread like a disease.

Likewise, Humungous has no plan of grandeur for what he wants, no real sustainable end goal – even if he were to capture the refinery he would end up burning it, because even his creative goals lead to destruction. That’s simply who he is. He is lost to damnation, though he would deny it and claim that his is the only path to order.

By contrast, Furiosa’s thematic overlay is one of redemption. It’s her choices and actions that start the events of Fury Road. She backs down from nothing and no one, takes responsibility for her world and those in her care, and ends up making her world a better one. Her story moves her from heartless and unhappy to heartful and happy, as she frees what’s left of civilization from the death cult that had claimed it, forces reformation, and puts power in the hands of people better than her.

And those people?

The women in Fury Road have got the flavor of salvation. They’ve put their faith in Furiosa and, to a lesser degree, Max. They’re relying on her to get them to safety, and when that fails they expect her to come up with a new plan. She does, but their agency is tied to that of Furiosa. She does good by them, and they even convince other people to put their faith in them even as they continue to put their faith in Furiosa.

Over in the Road Warrior, the people in the refinery have put their agency in the hands of their leader and, to a lesser degree, Max. They expect the plan of their leader to save them, and they’re content to let him die for their well-being. Max is a handy substitute, and they’re more than happy to let Max die for them instead.

Anyway, this is the bare bones of where story begins, the place where we lay the groundwork for everything else to come. From here, we start constructing characters, but we’ll get to that in a few weeks.

Bare Bones? That's where Max lives.

Bare Bones? That’s where Max lives.

Questions? Comments? Let us know and we’ll answer. Let’s start making the best possible stories.

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