Stray Thoughts — Comics 1/13

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It’s been a long few days (personal stuff; everyone’s okay) and I’m sitting here next to a pile of comics realizing I haven’t really run down my pull list and recent graphic novel reads in a little while, and also thinking that the idea I had for a Ten Favorite One-And-Done Single-Issue Comics post is probably less interesting to the folks who are kind enough to read these posts.

Before I do get into the pile I ought to say that I keep thinking about how to do a sort of Comics Canon. It’s an intriguingly difficult project. The Comics Journal tried this at the end of the last century and the list was so gleefully willful I can’t understand how it was of any use to anyone at all — it contained entire bodies of work, like “Al Hirschfield’s caricatures” alongside an entry for a single Harvey Kurtzman cartoon. I mean, it was a *good* Harvey Kurtzman cartoon but still. If you make your list of single volumes you end up leaving off stuff like The Sandman and The Fantastic Four or picking a single representative volume, which doesn’t work because the experience of superhero comics is largely cumulative (I did this for The Guardian a few years ago. The list is still pretty good, I think, and Endless Nights really is a good Sandman book, but I have no Kirby on there and no Love and Rockets) and it’s snobby and ahistorical to ignore them. But make your criteria too broad and you end up doing what TCJ did. It’s vexing.

A much easier list: Stuff I’m reading or have recently read.

  • Mudbite by Dave Cooper. My god, I love Dave Cooper. Comics in a sexual confessional mode, especially by men, have fallen out of fashion, due in part to the loathsome trend in art criticism toward reading comics as though you were planning on calling the work as witness for the artist’s prosecution, and to be honest there were probably too many comics with the precis “Hello, my name is John and this is my penis” in the world anyway. But Cooper’s work can stay, as far as I’m concerned. Like his contemporary Al Columbia, who is just as brilliant and indefensible although for reasons of violence rather than sex, Cooper’s work recalls Max Fleischer’s terrifying rotoscoped dream-logic cartoons (here, wanna have nightmares?) and he’s a fabulously accomplished oil painter on top of being an amazing cartoonist. He and the very funny Johnny Ryan did kids’ cartoons for Nickelodeon until recently and it’s good to see him back. I put “Mudbite” on my “most anticipated” list last week and I regret nothing.
    Cooper is obsessed with fleshy women; his gorgeous graphic novel “Ripple” is in part an explicit exploration of this obsession. In Mudbite, which is in a sort of wide-screen format and in color, he simply has his character go on Fellinoid, dreamlike adventures in enchanted forests and magic curio stores with beautiful, shiny, rubbery women jiggling with cellulite.
    Look, it’s really good, I don’t know what to tell you.
  • Under Mudbite there are several books I’ve already written about or aren’t new: A bizarre and wonderful miniseries based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Dastardly and Muttley, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Belgian cartoonist Mauricet, which I recommend very highly, an old issue of Steve Bissette’s marriage-ending extreme horror anthology Taboo, which I need to put with its siblings, the latest paperback of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s watercolor space opera Descender, which I’m enjoying — hot take: it’s like “Saga,” but without the feeling that the book’s entire moral system was derived from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s twitter feed — under that are two issues of Noah Van Sciver’s minicomic Blammo, and at the bottom of the stack are the last couple issues of tiny but fierce publisher Avatar’s terrific black-and-white SF/horror serial anthology Cinema Purgatorio, which it funded through a kickstarter and which has I believe five issues left in its run. It has an Alan Moore serial, a Garth Ennis serial, and a very fun one by Christos Gage and one of my very favorite young artists, Gabriel Andrade, about kaiju monsters.
  • There are now enough occasional “Hellboy” stories to form a full book, I believe. The latest, Krampusnacht, is terrific, a Christmas special with art by Adam Hughes and a  fun story by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who, though he has sworn off doing any more interiors, did do a lovely cover for this one-shot. I love “Hellboy” a lot and I hope Mignola keeps making these stories, with help or without, until one of us dies. The Duncan Fegredo issues of the main “Hellboy” sequence are just as beautiful as Mignola’s own incredible work.
  • Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon’s Batman: Creature of the Night is unimpeachable so far; it’s one a few books I’ll decline to comment on in too much detail until it’s finished but I have high hopes. Others in that category: Garth Ennis and Russ Braun’s very silly Jimmy’s Bastards, which somebody unpleasant might describe as “un-PC,” and Ennis’s Punisher miniseries The Platoon. There’s also a very weird Valiant book called Eternity out that I’m enjoying along these lines. The artist is Trevor Hairsine, who had a brief moment at Marvel a few years ago, and the writer is Matt Kindt, whose ultradense spy books “Super Spy” and “Mind MGMT” really are the eighth wonder of the world. Anyway this one is pretty fun and I don’t honestly understand what’s going on in it well enough to spoil it but I’m having a good time.
  • I am also reading Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, DC Comics’ official sequel to “Watchmen,” mostly because I want to know what on earth the point of it is rather than in expectation of something cool or fun. I’m uncomfortable about this; I don’t like rewarding DC for its fabulous assholery around “Watchmen,” which Johns is at least personally abetting here, but I’d like to be able to talk and think cogently about the comic. I don’t know. I decided to buy it from our rinky-dink little comic shop out here in Bay Ridge in the hopes that the money would at least do some good and felt even guiltier when the very nice guy who runs the place happily presented me with a little mini-poster on cardstock of a Superman-as-Dr.-Manhattan drawing and a countdown-to-superman button with the “Watchmen” clock logo futzed with to have Superman at midnight.
    My take on this book is that it’s very stupid so far. It has some nice character moments and Frank is a capable artist but it’s doing cut-rate versions of every clever structural thing Moore invented in “Watchmen” from the corny parallelism in the narrative captions to the evenly-divided nine-panel grid throughout. I mean I suppose that stuff is fine but that was the language of the book, not its statement. The reason “Watchmen” is good — very good, I’d say — is that it’s actually about something; Its characters are forced by circumstance to make large moral decisions and suffer or escape suffering as a consequence, not always fairly or expectedly. The panel of Dan and Laurie kneeling by Adrian’s swimming pool, embracing because, through no fault of their own, they lived through the book’s many disasters and are allowed by an ultimately entropic universe to keep on loving each other, remains profoundly moving to me. This “Doomsday Clock” thing feels like it’s about, I dunno, fucking superheroes so far. If the book is something beyond an especially clever gloss on “Watchmen” that revitalizes some foundering IP for Time Warner I’ll be the first to praise it, rotten heart or no, but it doesn’t seem like it will be. It seems like it will be about how Superheroes Are Very Cool, You Should Buy Some Licensed Beach Towels, But in a Badass, Ironic Way. Johns is a good writer but he’s a nerd. Moore is an irascible maniac but he’s not a nerd, he’s a brilliant high modernist whose medium just happens to be comics.
  • I’m reading some mainstream Marvel books: Mark Waid has two at the moment, both pairing him with absolutely killer artists, the first a guy named Mike del Mundo who does crazy neon digital painting on Avengers, the second a very traditionalist penciller-inker named Chris Samnee with a wonderful sense of pacing and layout who did an amazing run with Waid on Daredevil and is now even better on Captain America. The pair had a not-totally-successful “Black Widow” two-book series together with Samnee writing and Waid merely providing dialogue; Waid’s dialogue is good but his plotting is so tight you can bounce a quarter off it, and he’s the best Cap writer of the last forty years as far as I’m concerned, so I’m into both of them. The third is Moon Knight, by a writer I’m not familiar with named Max Bemis, who does horror very well so far, with art by Jacen Burrows, whose work I decided I liked as he rounded out 12 eye-popping issues of Alan Moore’s “Providence.” He’s one of those artists who blossoms after a fruitful collaboration with a good writer — the Burrows who’s drawing “Moon Knight” is ten times the artist who did “Crossed” a few years ago.
  • DC books: Deadman, which, god help them, his editors have agreed to let Neal Adams write as well as draw, and as a consequence it makes less than no sense but it sure is pretty; Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt’s The Wild Storm, which I’ve crowed about until everyone is sick of listening to me about it; and the absolutely ridiculous Dark Knights: Metal, a silly-ass Batman book that makes almost as little sense as “Deadman” but has such beautiful art by Greg Capullo and so much wonky continuity stuff tossed in for fun that I’m enjoying it against my better judgment. Good work, team.
  • There aren’t many bad issues of Love & Rockets but the most recent one was particularly good; the Beto stuff was memorably weird and the Jaime stuff was so touching; it’s a flashback to the “Wigwam Bam” era of the book but Jaime is much tighter in his focus on the characters who need attention and Maggie’s love for Hopey shines like a lighthouse. My favorite thing I’ve read in a good long time.
  • Okay so it’s finally time to talk about Tom King, I think. King is such an interesting author and so clearly having A Moment that I’ve resisted writing about him because the stuff he’s been lauded for, especially The Vision, didn’t feel fully realized to me and I didn’t want to trash him for failing in a way that still put him head and shoulders above a lot of his competitors. He’s really good at tone and tension but his work doesn’t always pay off; it merely works up a good head of foreboding and then falters at the finish line. And I’m not one of those people who complains about the ending of “The Stand” but if you’re going to go on for a long time and not pay off, give your reader a lot of little character moments along the way, otherwise when she gets to the end that reader is going to feel like you owe her something you’re not delivering and she won’t forgive you for dropping hint after hint without planning far enough ahead.
    I read what fans tell me is King’s best Batman arc so far, The War of Jokes and Riddles, and I liked it though not nearly as much as I did I Am Gotham, the first arc. Some of that is down to the artwork — David Finch is terrific —but a lot of it is that King is trying to figure out how to make repetition and uniformity say something interesting on the page and what they often say is, “The artist used a photostat of the previous panel with new dialogue because this is a lazy way to think about a comics page.” He has some very good tricks he learned from Neil Gaiman (the panel of the Joker’s hostages, who he doesn’t remember killing, feels straight out of “The Sandman”), which is kind of refreshing because Alan Moore’s peculiar grammar is so incredibly oppressive in superhero comics especially at DC, though the story did turn out to be About Superheroes in a way I object to.
    Anyway King appears to have worked out a lot of his kinks in the latest issue of his most recent book, with the genuinely great young artist Mitch Gerads, Mister Miracle #6. There are a few photostats in this series but Gerads is so inventive in the way he deploys them that it’s totally okay, and the new issue does some stuff with layout that I’ve rarely seen, and sustains it over the course of a full issue of comics. It’s an actually beautiful mainstream superhero comic, with clever writing and two characters who have both full and developed personalities and an interesting relationship with one another, and best of all, it’s very funny.
    I’m on board for it.
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Stray Thoughts—The Best of 2017

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Some things that happened in 2017:

  1. I saw only three movies in the theater: Thor: Ragnarok, Dunkirk, and The Last Jedi. I am a big movie nerd and so it was a hard thing to give up but the cost, both in money and in time mapping out logistics, is high enough when you have a kid to watch that it’s just too much for a bit. That said, I absolutely cannot wait to take Lev to the kids’ matinees at the Film Forum in a couple of years. Anyway The Last Jedi was fine, Thor was just delightful, and Dunkirk was the longest 100-minute movie ever made and its isn’t-he-clever structure was totally unjustifiable garbage and I’m beginning to think Christopher Nolan’s main use is as a competent hack who made some good Batman movies. I caught a couple of others on airplanes and on the streaming services we have in lieu of cable:
    Get Out is a terrific horror flick and one of those like The Exorcist or the original Halloween that manage to start enough conversations that they can’t be ignored in the way that the genre usually is. I liked it all the more for this tremendous essay on it by Zadie Smith.
    –The new Spider-Man movie, if not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, is terrific fun, better than the other three, and a bona fide high school movie, which is what Spider-Man movies really should be.
    Wonder Woman was shockingly mediocre. The more I think about it the more it annoys me; there’s not a single interesting or inventive sequence in it. A thing I love about, for example, the James Bond or Mission: Impossible movies—or the more recent Marvel Comics flicks—is that each one is put together by a team of very serious action movie buffs who do their damnedest to make every sequence either a completely new idea—a knife-fight in the dining car of a train! A laser-gun battle on hang-gliders!—or a clever homage to a classic sequence like the Dark Knight’s bank robbery scene, a great twist on the best scene in Heat. Wonder Woman was a completely bland superhero flick that wanted a big cookie for having cast a woman in the lead role and I guess it got one. It wasn’t as bad as the rest of the subnormal non-Batman DCU flicks but those movies aspire to mediocrity.
    Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was so slick it didn’t feel like there was any movie underneath but it wasn’t actively bad or, like Wonder Woman, boring.
  2. Politics was very bad, wasn’t it? I wish the middle-aged white Christians who felt the need to put a Nazi-loving gameshow host in the White House had thought harder about why everyone hates them. Is it because they’re a persecuted group of innocent religious folks who must count it all joy when they suffer for Christ, or because they’re a bunch of thin-skinned tyrants who constitute the most important voting bloc in the country and exercise veto power over every single sitting politician and are thus personally responsible for the last forty years of anti-worker monetary policy and the ongoing violent hazing of immigrants?
  3. I had a hard time reading anything, partly because I had a sort of slow-motion quasi-breakdown (might just be new parenthood, who’s to say) and partly because it just became hard to switch off and get out of my head. I’ve come to the conclusion that reading is the opposite of Twitter; Jonathan Franzen said a few years ago that no one with an active internet connection on their writing machine could produce good fiction. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I see what he means. I enjoyed and was frustrated with his 2015 novel Purity this year; I caught up on Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, every page of which ought to be framed and hung in in a separate museum, and I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s slim book of Norse Mythology, which I read to the baby in his very, very early days. Currently I’m finishing The Erstwhile, by Brian Catling; his work is difficult but really unusual and unlike any other fantasy writer I know.
  4. I enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus immensely. HZD is a vast open-world action game in which the primary mechanic involves hunting robot dinosaurs, and Lance Reddick (whom I love) is in it. Wolfenstein is just gorgeous. It’s a big, defiantly overdesigned campaign-driven first-person shooter and it has no loot boxes, no pushy co-op component, no hints that the game really isn’t any good without the multiplayer, and it’s just really well-made. The machine guns handle differently from one another and the enemy AI is smart enough that when the game runs you through progressively crueler gauntlets of sci-fi Nazis you must kill or be killed by, you get an actual sense of accomplishment for despatching them. The game is of its moment, too: Fighting Klansmen is part of the fun and the alt-right gets more than a couple of shout outs. It’s funny—the Wolfenstein games for years were not much more than tech demos, made mostly because lead designer John Carmack had found some amazing technical trick he could use to square the computing circle, and Nazis were convenient villains. Now that Nazis are a topic of conversation and debate the games have become super-woke and it works surprisingly well. I liked Superhot a lot, for a gimmick that doesn’t get old—it’s a first-person shooter in which you control time, which moves only when you move—and I enjoyed the latest Ninja Theory game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, about a young woman whose mental breakdown takes the form of the Norse underworld. It’s similar in tone and texture to From’s brutally difficult Dark Souls games, though it’s not nearly as hard, and the acting and design are very good. Screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland was a primary creative force on the last few Ninja Theory games, so I tend to keep abreast of what they’re up to. This one felt like they were trying to make a game that outclassed its budget category—the non-boss enemies are very samey and the combat is engaging but extremely simple—but I’d say they succeeded even though you could feel the strain.
  5. Here are the comics I liked best this year, in no order:
    Providence. Alan Moore is a genius; this isn’t particularly controversial any more. But this year, the act of even trying to write something that grappled with our current awful moment, with the possibility that we may honestly not be the dominant form of life on this planet in the next hundred years, felt like it was in bad taste. We had not yet arrived at exhaustion and the need for comfort, or at least I hadn’t; I wanted to look at it. I wanted to stare at the abyss and demand that it tell me its name. Moore wrote something for that need. It’s a horror graphic novel, set in New England, about a young closeted Jewish man who travels around the countryside running into people who approximate but aren’t quite the protagonists or monsters from HP Lovecraft’s short stories. As it draws to a close, it begins to make sense not merely as a picaresque, mildly funny horror story, or even as commentary on Lovecraft’s work, but as a pitiless examination of our present state, doom and all. It’s a magnificent piece of work during a bad year for comics, splendor amidst the Splenda, and I’m glad I read it.
    Boundless. Jillian Tamaki is a remarkable cartoonist and no two pieces in this short story collection are alike; it’s a fantastic double bill with Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, a book that should have won some kind of national award last year.
    Love & Rockets. Los Bros Hernandez are wonderful. They have always been wonderful, they will likely remain wonderful, and their work takes place in a zone I don’t know much about, partly because big chunks of it are invented and partly because it refers to a specific kind of SoCal punk culture in the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve only ever read about in L&R (feel free to recommend additional reading in the comments, I’m sure there’s lots more to know). The latest issue traces the borders of Maggie’s deep love for Hopey and it does that so generously; Jaime’s work has always been warm but somehow he’s kept himself from getting sloppy in his late career. It’s a deep pleasure to read.
    Mister Miracle. Tom King, master of mood, is at it again on this very weird superhero book with artist Mitch Gerads, who’s going for a kind of hi-fi Bill Sienkiewicz thing that really, really works. I’m not sure what the deal with the story is at the moment; it feels like it’s building but it’s hard to see what the ultimate structure will look like. I like King and I like that he’s having a moment; his Batman stuff was truly excellent and I liked his Omega Men even when I found it a little hard to follow; his Vision series was a little overpraised but very solid. I’m hoping this book goes someplace.
    Songy of Paradise. Gary Panter is both an amazing primitivist and one of the greatest living scholars of epic poetry; this completes the loose trilogy that started with Jimbo’s Inferno, and honestly it’s the easiest and most fun to read of the three. An odd thing about this book: It’s standard comic-book length, despite being a gigantic hardcover on fancy paper. 40 pages total including the front matter.
    One More Year. I wrote about how much I like Simon Hanselmann’s angry, drugged-out humor comic earlier this year on this blog; it’s great. It’s very funny and its denouement lands like a slap.
    My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. I’ve written ad nauseam about how much I love Emil Ferris’s phone book/art exhibition/roman a clef/murder mystery, and it’s still true. It’s a beautiful book, a genuinely great piece of graphic literature that just fell out of the sky this year, from a never-before-published talent. It’s marvelous.
    Grandville: Force Majeure. I wish Bryan Talbot could find his way onto those lists of great auteur comics creators. He’s a terrific British SF writer with an adroit sense of pacing and a marvelous, vital imagination; his Luther Arkwright stories are so close in tone to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories that you’d be forgiven for thinking Talbot is ripping Moorcock off, but he’s not. He’s doing something subtler and stranger. The same is true here, in the final volume of Talbot’s Grandville series, set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals—but also humans, all drawn like Tintin characters and part of kind of low-caste subculture. I think there’s far more than meets the eye to these books and I need to go back through them again to see what else I can pick up; each one is a murder mystery and each one is filled with fascinating, sometimes jarring fine-art parallels. The best is the Christmas volume, Grandville: Noel, but Force Majeure was a lot of fun.
    Diaspora Boy. Eli Valley is such a good political cartoonist I actually have hope for the form. He’s a hardcore lefty and a practicing Jew whose work contains a lot about our current moment I don’t think anyone else could have said, or not as well or as bravely. His tactic of calling out Likudniks for being bad at their religion because of their politics is dear to my heart for what are probably obvious reasons, if you’ve read this blog before, and he’s a hell of a draftsman, somewhere between Aline Kominksy and Charles Burns.
  6. I saw two art exhibitions this year, one a really gorgeous historical reckoning by Kara Walker, who is, I think, probably our greatest living artist, and another, a David Hockney retrospective at the Met. I also saw the simultaneous Michelangelo exhibition, which was fine, but Hockney’s figures just seem to walk off their canvasses to me, or rather, to be trapped there in amber. Looking at them I kind of can’t believe people agreed to pose for him—his figures are so troubled, selfish and alienated. But I’m glad they did.
  7. I got a baby, Lev, who is the single best use of contiguous carbon atoms in the universe as it currently stands. Currently he scoots around on the living room floor and says “a-DUH” with an air of finality after he has spent a few minutes thoroughly examining a new thing small enough to turn over in his hands. He likes salmon. He has slept through the night maybe four times this year, certainly fewer than ten. Watching him get born was the best moment of my entire life. His mother is perfect.
  8. I lost my job, which I really loved, when the baby was just about three months old. It was difficult. I loved the job and I loved my colleagues but cost-cutting is cost-cutting; it’s something I try not to be angry about but that is difficult.
  9. I broke my elbow on my final assignment, which was unpleasant and resulted in two weeks of being unable to pick up the baby.
  10. In the intervening three months between losing my job and finding a new one I went to Spain with my wife for her research, which was partially funded to an extent that allowed us to used a not-completely-irresponsible amount of my buyout money so I could tag along and provide childcare. While there, I failed to write anything of substance but learned a great deal about what is important, namely the baby and Picasso, and what is unimportant, namely reporters’ egos, mine specifically. And I resolved to try and make something.
  11. In July I found a new job, working as an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo, where I busied myself trying to get interviews with or documents written by people who had been accused of doing very bad things. I succeeded in this more often than I thought I would, which pleased me.
  12. I got very paranoid and depressed, despite the new job.
  13. I worked on a comedy show with some amazing actors and writers, contributing a little to writers’ meetings and some ideas about direction to the research team, and the occasional writeup of a complicated issue to the writers themselves. Being in a writers’ room, even as a too-talkative fly on the wall, was profoundly wonderful. I’m scared to death of stand-up but I loved so much being around people who were trying to make something funny, whether or not they succeeded.

CAN ANYBODY FIND ME SOMEBODY TO LOVE?

It’s the homeless man in the Santa outfit screaming “Make it straight!” who wakes her up, not cop knocking on the car window.

“Make it straight!” he howls at the cars as they blast down Fourth Avenue, near the place where Brooklyn runs into the sea. “Make it straight! Make it straight! This street got to be straight! Ain’t got time for crooked streets no more! Ain’t got no time for for shoes! Don’t make me take off those shoes, I can’t do that!”

That’s when the cruiser turns into the parking lot of the CVS, a big white Ford with fearsome blue letters on the doors: NYPD: COURTESY. PROFESSIONALISM. RESPECT. The lights are on, but not the siren. She figures he’s here for the wino, who stands bowlegged like a gunslinger from a cowboy movie in front of the car so it can’t drag its butt in off the street.

The cop just hangs out, waiting for the guy to leave, which he does, after a minute: a blueshirt, either Jacob or Bill, comes out of the employee entrance to the store with a sheaf of cardboard boxes and Drunk Santa hurries over to ask him about something. Jacob/Bill is already shaking him off as he approaches and shifts gears to whiny begging. The cop parks the cruiser, leaves the lights on, slams NYPD and starts walking toward the LeSabre.

Oh, shit, she thinks. She has to pee, all of a sudden, and her back hurts. Sleeping in the back seat of this stupid car her stupid father gave her for her 16th stupid birthday has hurt her stupid back, on top of every other stupid thing. She doesn’t pretend to be asleep, although she considers it. She just watches the cop walk over, big blue bomber hat with its silver badge on the forehead covering most of his face. He’s talking into the radio on his shoulder and looking right at her. She doesn’t move. He walks up to the car and looks inside. She still doesn’t move. He knocks on the rear driver’s-side window, a inch or two from her face, and she rolls it down a crack with a very old-fashioned hand-crank.

“Can you step out of the car, please, Miss?”

“I’m a ma’am.”

“Can you step out of the car, please, Ma’am?”

“I don’t want to let the heat out. And my husband has the keys.”

The cop leans down, and he starts to say, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step out of the car,” but he only gets to “step” before he sees what’s going on. He pushes the call button on his walkie, then thinks better of it, and lets go. His badge names him DeCesare. He is in his fifties, or his alcoholic forties. He has seen some shit, in his time.

Here is what gives Gus DeCesare pause: half-lying on the back seat of the cetacean 1998 Buick under a Spider-Man comforter and six carefully arranged bath towels, wearing fingerless gloves and a threadbare dull green hoodie that probably used to be black, is a petite woman—barely a woman, 18 at the absolute oldest—who is, even through the comforter, as pregnant as pregnant can be. She has dark hair and very dark brown eyes, almost black, and looks Hispanic to his careful eye although he has offended a number of Asians this way. The car’s interior contains most of the detritus of a cramped studio apartment, with a laundry bag hanging over the back of the driver’s headrest and a number of paperback comic books with library stickers on the spines piled up behind the back bench, dangerously obscuring the rear-view morror. There is a purple plastic rice cooker plugged into a cigarette lighter adapter, and several burnable CDs on the floor with Top 40 names Sharpied on them. The passenger’s bucket seat is reclined, presumably so a second person can sleep here in considerably less comfort. An honest-to-god New York State marriage license is laminated to the backrest of the bench with clear packing tape. He leans close enough to see the name on it: Fakhouri.

Goddamn it, this is the right car.

“Are you Maria?” he asks.

“Am I being detained?”

“Hold on,” he says. Then, into his microphone, “There’s nobody here.”

“I am too here,” she says.

There is a burst of static from the walkie and DeCesare rolls his eyes and ducks away from the car, saying, “Negative, negative, just some kid.” When he comes back he looks at her sternly, as cops practice doing in the mirror. “Ma’am,” he begins.

“If I’m not being detained, I don’t have to talk to you,” Maria says.

“Ma’am, this car has been reported stolen.”

Before she can respond, there is a commotion over near the front of the store and the old wino is pointing at the car, talking to a huge Middle Eastern man in a blue polo shirt and khakis, bearded, also very young, should probably be entering his second semester of college and not here at the CVS. The young man is looking daggers at the cop.

“Hey!” he shouts as he walks over. “What do you want, man? That’s my car.”

The cop relaxes into a stance that puts his hand a lot nearer his gun and the girl in the car starts to shake. “Is this your car?” he asks the young man as he gets nearer, as though he hadn’t heard him.

“Yes! That’s my car and that’s my girl and that’s all our shit in there!”

“Show me the keys.”

The young man angrily digs into his pocket and thrusts a keyring into the cop’s hand, as if that proves it. The cop inspects it for a Buick key, finds one, calmly twists the key off the ring, and hands the ring back to the young man. The young man, who is also wearing a badge, which says Yusuf, gets confused, then angry.

“What the fuck, man!” he says. “You can’t just take our car!”

“This car has been reported stolen by the title holder,” the cop repeats.

“I didn’t steal this car!” Yusuf says. “This is my wife’s car!”

“Sir, you need to listen carefully to me: the man who holds the title on this car has reported it stolen. That person called the precinct. He said he thought a Middle Eastern kid who might be a terrorist stole it. He gave us the tag number and the name of the supposed terrorist. He said he thought whoever stole the car might resist arrest, and that we should be prepared to protect ourselves. The complainant, a 40-year-old male known to the precinct, has two priors for domestic disturbance and no fans in this parking lot. One of his kids went missing, nobody’s looking real hard for her. Am I making myself clear?”

Yusuf is looking at his shoes.

“I’m sorry,” says Maria.

“I thought he might stop hating me,” says the boy.

“Are you the father?” asks the cop with a half-laugh, as if that explained everything.

Yusuf raises his head and DeCesare realizes that the younger man has been hunching over, a lot, probably so he doesn’t intimidate the customers or freak out his supervisor. Now that he rolls back his shoulders, he has a surprising height advantage, and DeCesare curses himself for letting him come so close. He might not be able to draw his gun if something stupid happens.

“I will be,” says Yusuf proudly, looking down his nose at the police officer.

“That’s good,” DeCesare says calmly, beaming information at Yusuf with a laid-back gaze. Nobody here wants any trouble, he thinks loudly, especially not with a baby on the way. Everything’s cool. “I found this car here, but there was nobody in it,” he says. “Maybe there wasn’t even any stuff in it. I couldn’t find the keys. I called a tow truck, and they came and took it away.”

The cop turns around slowly and walks back to his cruiser. “Negative,” he can be heard saying into his walkie. “Negative, negative. Send a tow. Yes, there are Muslims here, this is Bay Ridge. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a Muslim. Muslims and firemen, that’s the whole fucking neighborhood. No, not the residence, take it to impound.”

Yusuf leans over to the window. “I’m telling Anthony you’re going to be in the back until I get off,” he says. “I’ll come back out and get the rest of the stuff. Don’t lift anything.”

He looks angry, so Maria gets a grip. She cranks down the window a little more and kisses him.

“That’s my son in there,” he says. “Nobody touches my son or my wife.” He kisses her in return, quickly, then walks back toward the store. As he does, she begins gathering everything in sight into the laundry bag, and making split-second decisions. The CDs can’t come except the new D’Angelo record and the KRS-ONE and the Queen. Fuck it, none of the comic books. No more library. She’ll tell Anthony to come out and get them if he wants them. Anthony’s okay. Their latest phone. She pulls on Yusuf’s sweatpants and a pair of gold tennis shoes. She leaves his jeans and his two cool t-shirts, takes his slacks and his black socks and his one shirt with buttons on it, and she throws the Spider-Man comforter around her shoulders. After a moment, she brings the towels, because she keeps having this feeling that they’re not going to make it to the hospital in time. She doesn’t know why she thinks this. She brings no clothes for herself; she is hoping she’ll die tragically in childbirth, leaving poor weeping Yusuf to care for their beautiful son all alone, and her son will grow up to be president, and she’ll look down on them both from heaven because honest to God, life is too hard. It just is.

There is another knock on the window.

She looks up and Drunk Santa is standing there, smiling in what he probably thinks is a friendly way but is actually a totally terrifying way. She shakes her head. He makes the “Oh, come on” face and mimes cranking the window down. She cranks it down a tiny, tiny sliver and says “Fuck off and die.”

“Girl, don’t be like that,” Santa says. “When they gonna make these roads straight, huh? Crooked roads, that’s dangerous. I been homeless a long time, man. I been in the desert. I got a question for you, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Maria does not say anything.

“You got any hot sauce?”

Maria laughs, and Santa laughs back.

“No shit, I need hot sauce! You know those little centipede things with the billion legs that run up and down your walls at night?”

Maria grimaces. Her backache is back.

“Man, I eat those things by the dozen. Protein, you feel me?”

Maria does not feel him.

“I just—they don’t go down right without hot sauce. And I think mmmmaybe that cop mighta kicked you outta your car, so if you’re just gonna leave some hot sauce in there, maybe I can take it with me?”

Maria asks herself what she’d want her son to do in this situation, and she goes through the big pleather pocket in the back of the passenger’s bucket seat until she finds a bottle of Frank’s and three string cheeses. She gives them all to Santa, who says “Thank you ever so kindly” and skips off, literally skips down the sidewalk, yelling, “Make it straight! Make all this motherfucker straight up in here!”

She laughs, and she reminds herself that there’s always somebody that’s got it worse than you do, and sometimes those people are happy, so maybe you should be happy too. She gets out of the car and leaves the door open. Maybe she can at least run down the battery before the tow gets here and he’ll have to jump it when it gets back to him. She takes the bag, because she can hear the truck coming, and it’s really heavy, and oh god her back. She grabs a couple of comics for Anthony, some Silver Surfer stuff. She’s just going to gank some Pepto when she gets inside and anybody who wants to say shit to a pregnant lady about shoplifting antacid can kiss her Puerto Rican ass.

Yusuf comes out and she sees him about to scold her for lifting the bag of their stuff, and then she sees him notice the tow truck pulling into the lot, and he grabs the bag from her and hustles her in through the employee entrance as though the tow truck driver was going to arrest her. Maria can hear Santa, still, a little. Be good for goodness’ sake, she thinks nonsensically, and giggles a little.

*****

Anthony is being a huge dick about them sleeping there that evening, even though they gave him all the comics they had.

“I’ll get fired,” he says. “And you’ll get fired, too man. I’m sorry.”

“I can’t sleep on ‘I’m sorry!’” roars Yusuf. “My baby can’t eat none of your ‘I’m sorry,’ shithead!”

“I’m sorry,” says Anthony, but he doesn’t look sorry anymore. “You need to go. Go to a shelter. There’s a shelter like three blocks from here. I gave her the address like a week ago.”

“She’s pregnant!” says Yusuf. “We don’t want charity!”

“Well, you need some charity!” says Anthony. “Also they love pregnant bitches at shelters! You’ll get the fucking president suite!”

Then Yusuf starts to look really, really angry and Maria grabs his arm and gives Anthony the bird and he keeps trying to apologize but they turn around and start walking toward the shelter, which is down on 90th Street, Maria knows. It’s ten blocks, not two, which still isn’t that far but Maria is fucking waddling. She hates it so much. She wants to hold her baby in her arms, and godDAMN, her back hurts. She is really starting to worry that it’s not just her back hurting, and then they get to the shelter, an uninviting, unlabeled blood-brown metal building on an ugly corner of an ugly street, and it’s locked. But all they have to do is knock, Anthony had said. Knock and they’ll open right up for her.

There is a bullet-headed white guy looking through a tiny little window at them. He takes one look at Yusuf and says, “No more room, man, sorry. There’s a 24-hour diner down the street. Go hang out there until a spot opens up for her.”

“My wife’s cold, man,” Yusuf says. “It’s cold out here, come on.”

“This is a battered women’s shelter. You touch that pregnant girl?”

“What? No!”

“Okay, then she’s not a battered woman. No way can you come in here, though, ever. Sorry, man.”

“Please, boss.”

“Son, I’m not even supposed to be talking to you. I don’t know how you found this place but it’s a secret. Wrong people find out we’re here, this building turns into fucking Die Hard.”

And Yusuf does something Maria has never seen him do before: he begs. Can’t you see she’s pregnant, man, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll work here for free, I got the new D’Angelo record, I got clothes, I done all kinds of shit before and I’ll do it all for you, I lied, I hit her just last week, open the door and I’ll show you the bruise, just let her in, please, don’t let me in anyway I’m a shitty husband, but the door is shut and the window is shut, too, and she can hear footsteps receding.

It is really cold.

She tells him it’s time to go somewhere else, and she kisses him on the cheek, and he just looks destroyed.

They don’t even get a seat at the diner. They look homeless. They are homeless.

She sees a pretty white lady walking down the sidewalk past the diner to the subway as they emerge into the cold, and she decides to try something.

I am a white lady, she tells herself. I just paid for a cheeseburger and french fries with half a bottle of ketchup, and I way overtipped. My husband just ate the lamb platter. We are prosperous and unshady.

She kisses Yusuf again, and then she lets go of his hand. He doesn’t move, he just slumps against the window of the diner. She covers him with the Spider-Man comforter and strides over to the white lady. I am wearing high heels, she thinks to her feet.

She walks briskly up to the other white lady and says, “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, we’re trying to find the shelter? Not the one on 90th, we’ve just come from there and they didn’t have what we wanted.”

“Oh my god, there is an AMAZING one over on 68th,” says the white lady.

Holy shit.

“68th and what?”

“Uh, fifth ave, I think? They’re so good, seriously. They do great medical, too. They close up in an hour, though, so you’d better walk.”

She gestures at the bumper-to-bumper traffic apparently caused by an accident somewhere down the avenue. “Good luck! Bundle that baby up!” And she vanishes down the subway entrance in a cloud of money like Maria’s fairy godmother.

She walks back to Yusuf. “There’s a shelter on 68th,” she says. “It’s a long way, but we can make it if we hurry.” He doesn’t move. “Baby,” she says gently. “Baby, we’ve got to go. Please. It’s cold.” Yusuf stares into space, sad and ashamed. Maria is really worried now. Her back super hurts. It’s like being on the period that killed the dinosaurs. “Baby, please. There’s a hospital there.”

Yusuf sits like a lump. Maria has seen him do this before; he gets really depressed. He was actually on an antidepressant for a little while when they were both working, but then they stopped being able to afford that, and then he would only buy the best prenatal whatever and so they stopped being able to afford their apartment, and then the doctors’ offices started calling them at work about bills—and this is with Obamacare—and so on and so forth.

The worst part is that she feels like there’s probably someone somewhere who would help them if that person knew where they were and what they’d been through. She just has to find that person.

Please, Maria asks this person, telepathically, like Jean Grey or Emma Frost, Please, if you are that person, do something to make my husband move.

And a miracle happens, and something reaches out to her, and gives her the eleven words to move her adoring husband from his catatonia and to an action that will save them both:

“Help me, you son of a bitch. My water just broke.”

*****

Man, of course it’s an animal shelter. White ladies do not know where the really good homeless shelters are.

It was kind of awesome being carried down the stairs to the subway and propped up against the turnstile in the sopping Spider-Man comforter while Yusuf set off the emergency alarm and then picked her up and carried her majestically over the threshold like the 95th Street Subway Station was their marital dwelling. Romance is where you find it.

But yes it’s an animal shelter. And here is why she loves her husband: Yusuf sees, very clearly, on the sign, “BAY RIDGE ANIMAL HOSPITAL,” and he just charges right in anyway.

It’s clean and quiet in the waiting area, with fluorescent lights in a drop-tile ceiling and several blue, cushioned chairs in a square around two coffee tables with Time magazines and Vanity Fairs from 2011 on them. Nobody is there, but everything is still on.

“Help us,” he announces to the empty waiting room. “My wife is going into labor and we cannot go to the hospital.” He doesn’t say can’t or won’t or doesn’t when he’s being grand; she suspects that when she really goes into labor he’ll start talking in the third person like Doctor Doom.

The vet comes into the waiting area and opens his mouth to deliver a very, very reasonable explanation about why he can’t deliver a baby here, this being a hospital for animals, not people, and as she feels her heart prepare to sink, it just hits her and she screams like she personally developed and invented screaming. Somebody is opening her box like it’s Christmas morning.

The doctor and Yusuf just start taking orders from her like she’s in charge and three male CUNY PhD biology students (she later learns) who are writing a paper on something insufferable come out of the back holding little grey kittens and the doctor shouts “WASH YOUR HANDS” and it takes the brighest of them about three seconds to take stock of the situation and tell the others what to do. She is going to name the child after him, she decides. Dogs start to howl from another part of the shelter, in sympathy. Cats get upset because the dogs are howling.

Yusuf carries her through the normal-looking door from the waiting room and down a hallway, into a sterile operating theater with linoleum tiles and a window in one wall that opens into a neighboring office. There are machines with tubes and digital readouts mounted on poles that stand on wheeled crossbars, and a flat shelf that runs the length of the room with an old CD player on it. There is a huge flat stainless table bolted into the tile right in the middle of the room, where Yusuf puts her down and stands behind her and grips the table on either side of her body with his big hands, as though he is going to rip it out of the floor if anybody does anything to her except deliver her baby. She leans back into him and screams again.

*****

What do you want me to say? It hurts, a lot, more than anything has ever hurt anyone.

It never stops.

When it does stop, though, there are literally babies and kittens together, and it is cutest thing on record. Or the kittens are cute. The baby looks kind of red and scrunched, but he is also the most beautiful person who ever lived, like if God was a baby. The vet makes them swear on the Holy Bible—he actually produces a Bible, from inside a desk somewhere—never to tell anyone—anyone—what he’s done there today. One of the grad students asks how he’s going to write about the experience that way and the vet just says, “Consider it a practicum” in a very dry way, and the other two grad students chortle knowingly and go off to calm down the frightened cats and the enthusiastic dogs.

There is banging. The vet gets up to answer the door, which he has locked, obviously, and it is a man from the Lebanese restaurant and butcher down the street, who has heard the screaming. He literally forces his way into the office with his belly and then charges back to the makeshift maternity ward, where sit every last one of the bath towels in a blood-soaked heap, and Maria, on the table, nursing the baby, at which point one of the grad students comes back in and announces that the ambulance won’t be there for an hour. The doctor curses him with a string of Cantonese that makes everyone in the room flinch, despite no one else understanding what he’s saying, even though Yusuf is swearing up, down and sideways that he will protect the vet from anyone who tries to harm him.

Yusuf turns to face down the intruder and recognizes him. The man starts to talk very fast to Yusuf in Syriac and then runs out the front door. Yusuf grabs Maria’s hand and they whisper to each other for several minutes in their own relational argot (Engrabiol? Spanglamaic?) while the grad students talk about what it all means. The dogs have more or less chilled out. The cats are nursing grudges. There is a moment of peace.

It is a good moment.

Then fourteen, count ‘em, Lebanese men troop into the animal shelter, each bearing a leg of lamb or a lamb chop or ground lamb paste, and they all start talking at once, in Syriac and English, about whose fault this is, and how shameful it is that their baby is born in a place like this, and who is this boy from their country who has no place to take his wife, and what it all means. Then a few minutes later their wives show up and start yelling at all the men.

The baby does not cry.

The grad students try to find presents for it. One has a brand new bottle of Green Irish Tweed; another has an old silver dollar in his wallet; the third has some really nice artisanal patchouli oil. They present them to Maria and Yusuf with great ceremony.

Somebody puts on some Queen.

On old iron stilts on the roof of the building, in flickering neon, is a bright yellow star.

Above that, who knows?

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing consolation, because they are no more.”

—Jeremiah 31: 15

“You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.”

—memorandum, Jay S. Bybee

4. As Lewis turns, he sees a tall man hurrying down the steps toward the water where the huge ships are passing slowly under the crumbling bridge, their decks piled with containers bound for Bermuda or Saigon or the Panama Canal. The Verrazzano still burns eight weeks after the last salvo, occasionally dripping red-hot chunks of tarmac in slow motion onto the ships below. Last month, one freighter arriving from Shenzhen caught a huge piece of molten pavement as the wide boat floated on its way under the bridge toward the terminal. It sank flaming before it reached Bayonne, a viking funeral for 1.1 million video games, 5,600 large orange stuffed dogs, and 31 men ranging in age from 19 to 64. A passenger, a Middle Eastern man in his fifties, survived, and was detained, though there is no suggestion that he had been involved in the fire that consumed the ship, which had an obvious cause, or any other manner of harm. He is said to be badly burned. Lewis is worried about the man; one of his grad students advocated causing a public fuss at the college over it.

The steps lead down from a foot-bridge that arcs over the highway running along the water; between the highway and the bay itself is a sidewalk, where people used to jog and walk their dogs. Now nobody comes out here any more, except Lewis, and him, only to catch the disgusting fish. With his rod propped against the railings, Lewis watches with clinical interest as the man and a companion—short and fat, who follows him at a slower pace—clamber over it, a few yards further down the sidewalk. Beyond the railing there is a drop of eight or nine feet; there is nothing but rocks below the wall, Lewis thinks. Then, out of old habit, he looks with a laboratory eye, for what he is not used to seeing, and notices a dinghy, perched on the rocks below the railing. It is hastily painted matt black except for several scrapes where yellow rubber can be seen through it. A man stands on the rocks by the grounded dinghy, nervously fingering the cord around a very old motor he has hauled up out of the water and into the boat. A pair of oars, for stealth, sit in its shallow cavity.

Lewis leans over the railing himself to watch as the two try to lower themselves onto the rocks, the tall one helping his companion over the rails, the fat one trying to move quickly and comically pedaling the air, seeking purchase on the rocks a few feet below. Lewis does not particularly like or trust strangers, especially not at the moment, but no fish are biting. He reels in the drowned bug impaled on his little fishing hook and shoulders the rod; he picks up the five-gallon paint bucket he has optimistically filled with clean water for his catch, and he walks down toward the pair trying to get into the boat to see if he can help. The thinner one, he sees as he gets closer, has brown skin and curly black hair. The companion’s face turns away quickly; something he’d mistaken for a belly shifts under a too-large coat.

Lewis hears shouting from further up the walkway; one man in uniform is berating another man in uniform for something. Lewis has almost reached the pair trying to board the boat. The shouting intensifies. Lewis worries that he has left his driver’s license up the hill in his apartment and that this will complicate any interaction with the police, although these men do not appear to be NYPD.

He comes up close enough that he will not need to shout over the traffic to be heard. “Need a hand?” he asks in conversational tones. The man looks up at him, and then at the bridge, where the uniformed figure being dressed down sees him, suddenly, and points over his superior’s shoulder.

*****

5. Lewis’s death comes as a shock to Peter. Peter still is not recovered as he sits with the emitter turned on, staring straight ahead, talking to Lewis, who is not there. Guiltily, he dials a vitally important phone number he has forgotten until now to call but it doesn’t even ring; it only makes a garbled, electronic sound like a violin in jello. The emitter makes no sound at all, gives off only a very faint blue light. It merely troubles the atmosphere in front of it, in a wave of visible distortion like heat, though the area is very cold in front of the dome-shaped enclosure where Lewis’s pet particles may or may not move. The apparatus looks like a flashbulb from an old movie; Peter has plugged it into a wall outlet and will catch hell from the chair of the department when the electric bill comes due, he knows. Lewis is in enough trouble for insisting that the retransmitter stay on permanently. But Lewis is dead.

No other lights in the laboratory are on. He ought not to be here. He has brought with him a large pipe wrench he used to fix his radiator three years ago; he keeps it in case he needs to storm the barricades, he tells his fellow TA, Ana, who visits his apartment sometimes, like a zoologist examining the habitat of a promising primate.

Peter Gorman, doctoral candidate in physics, drinks a bit more of the bottle of bourbon he took from Lewis’s office, using the keys he got from the cop yesterday. He has been here more or less since he got up, eating nothing, drinking to excess, slurring his imprecations at the  absent older man, lecturing about the inhumanity of the less-24s decree and the fate of the Rahebs. He refers Lewis’s ghost back to the front page of the New York Times the week previous, the now-famous photo of a woman in jeans and a t-shirt named Rachel something kneeling, pleading before a man in SWAT armor who holds her off with one hand, a heavy white cloth bag in the other, a little foot clearly pushing down on the interior of the bag. He lists Lewis’s failings mechanically, his lecture a tour de force assembled around the gaping hole of Lewis’s death: The raft, the bay, the misunderstanding with DHS, the manhunt for the dangerous, vanished migrants. The emitter pulses blue. No one is there. Peter is drunk.

His mentor was cautious, and as apolitical as you could be and still look at yourself in the mirror, or so Peter has always felt. Peter would bellow to Lewis about the procedural stupidity of the EL faction in their eternal war with the AR party, often while wearing one of many t-shirts with a huge, stylized L on it, Lewis sitting patiently in his office and looking closely at him as though worried that Peter might actually jump out of his skin in an especially vigorous fit of rage.

Physics were not politics, Lewis would say, again and again, a bromide that only further caffeinated Peter, who told him that of course everything was political especially the hard empirical truth, that facts necessitated action, that the action must be taken, and he would soon write strong words telling everyone so. A man who proved out theoretical particles should understand that, he would tell Lewis in scolding tones, in an effort to at least squeeze a little anger out of his moral lodestar, a tactic that had never worked before and would not work now.

And write Peter did, reams upon reams. The police came to visit him twice; Peter loved that and as soon as they’d first left his apartment, *which they’d entered without a warrant*, wrote about it in florid detail. He had hoped for criminal charges from the state against himself, ideally of sedition, and a trial, where he would represent himself, but none came, only silence. He felt very white and privileged and that made him angrier and he wrote more, interviews with union leaders and heartbreaking profiles of prisoners’ mothers, for newspapers and for magazines and on his blog, but nothing helped. No one cared. Why read when you’ve won? he asked himself bitterly. Why learn anything new?

The theft of the retransmitter had enraged him the most. Peter was certain its inconvenient timing had been intentional and not a coincidence; Lewis was fairly confident that the little device, which he’d assembled in the housing of a television, had been stolen and fenced in a more traditional fashion. Crime was on the rise. Everyone knew who to blame, but no one agreed about who that was.

The cop who came at the end of Christmas break to visit Peter the second time, on behalf of Lewis, was a local man; Peter had seen him around the neighborhood in bars and getting coffee. They’d bonded over the awful thing at the Rahebs’ Middle Eastern deli just a few days earlier, Peter remembered. He had reached unsuccessfully for some requisite anger at authority and greeted the man, whose name he couldn’t remember. The cop was tall and Hispanic with a manicured moustache and a dimpled chin, his hair cut close, skinnier than most of the gym rat guys who patrolled and lived in the area around the bridge, where they loved to blast up 4th Avenue in the dead of night in crouching blue or black American sports cars, their windows tinted, mufflers packed with glass to make a sound like a lawnmower constantly about to start.

“I got bad news,” the cop had said with practiced sincerity: “Your friend Lewis Rathburn is dead. I’m real sorry. I brought his effects because I thought you might not wanna come down to the station, so you just have to sign this.” He held up a form. “You’re his emergency contact at work and I knew your name when the lady at the college told me.” Peter signed and stared, stricken. “Teresa felt bad after that thing you wrote about her getting on your case,” the cop continued. “I don’t blame you, but you know. She doesn’t ask for those jobs, nobody does. If we didn’t have to clear the fuckin’ ticket pad we wouldn’t do that shit either.”

“How did he die?” asked Peter.

“Ohh,” the cop said, and sighed. “Some DHS guys shot him a couple weeks ago. It’s really confusing. I’m sorry it took so long to get in touch with you. He wasn’t carrying ID. It wasn’t one of us. I hate those dudes. Not all of us hate them but I do. Write about it if you want, just don’t put my name in it.”

“I won’t,” said Peter. “Thank you.”

“You want a drink or something?”

They went down to the bar across the street, in an old fire station, where there were theatrical moans from the crowd of Giants fans every time the game was interrupted by the news: there were more fires, none close by, some in places Peter had visited, some man-made, some caused by unseasonable drought. Radiation abatement programs on Staten Island desperately needed volunteers over the long holiday weekend and for New Year’s Eve. The images Peter imagined and the images he saw between downs and forward passes ran together; he ordered them each a double scotch but the cop insisted on paying.

It was good to talk to the cop. The demise of the deli had been unnerving and he’d spoken of it to no one, not even Lewis. Samir and Samia Raheb, the two Sams, had simply been gone one day last week, as had their staff; no one was sure exactly when. The store had stood open, unlocked and unmanned until Peter noticed it was open on Sunday. Samir, the gold crucifix always around his neck, would never have opened the store on Sunday, not at gunpoint. Peter saw the cop standing outside in his NYPD Scuba Team t-shirt. He looked at Peter.

“Stinks in there,” he said. “All the food’s spoiled.” Peter stood and watched while the cop called it in; the dispatcher said a report had already been made.

“When?” the cop asked. Two weeks ago, the radio said.

“Fine,” said the cop. He and Peter carried the trays of spoiled crab cakes and spoiled bhaba ghanouj and spoiled pork chops and spoiled walnut paste and a huge vat of cold tomato soup that smelled like death. He emptied them all into reinforced black trash bags they found under a sink with dirty dishes still in it in the back of the store.

“Isn’t this evidence?” Peter asked. “Shouldn’t you put up crime scene tape?”

The cop looked at him steadily and Peter had the impression, not for the first time, that a person he had just met was trying to decide whether he was an idiot or a troublemaker. “I don’t think so,” the cop said. “If there’s an investigation, you can give a statement and say I told you to do all this.”

“*If* there’s an investigation?” Peter insisted. “Why would you not investigate an obvious missing persons case?”

“That’s a good question,” the cop replied, and emptied an awful-smelling tray of stuffed previously green squashes into one of the trash bags. Peter was stricken. He had loved the squashes, now he would never eat one again.

He didn’t say anything else; they finished throwing away the food in silence. When he was done, the cop had hugged him with such suddenness that Peter at first resisted, then hugged back.

“They had a nephew,” the cop told Peter. “Yusuf. Sweet kid. Worked at the CVS, gigantic chip on his shoulder. They haven’t heard from him in a bit and they’re worried with all the shit. Do you political guys ever hear from people in trouble?” Peter shook his head. Us political guys usually just talk to each other and fight on Twitter, he said. “Okay, well, here’s the nephew’s phone number,” the cop said, and scrawled it on the back of a business card, with his name on it, which he thrust at Peter. Peter took the card.

“I can’t call him,” the cop had said. “Somebody else has to call him.”

Peter remembers it as a strange moment.

*****

6. In the bar, Peter thanked the cop for the drink and asked him how he’d been. They talked and bullshitted and complained about what an awful season the Giants were having, look at them, the fucking Atlanta Falcons are murdering them, they’re like if the Washington Generals were a football team and everybody else was the Globetrotters.

“What do you do?” the cop asked. “I thought you were a poli-sci guy but Rathburn was physics.”

Rathburn was the smartest person alive, Peter told him, smarter than anyone in the world, maybe smarter than Einstein. What happened to him? You have to tell me.

“It’s the thing with the Rahebs,” the cop says. “The Sams. There was all this bullshit about them having a less-24 hidden, God only knows how anyone got that idea. And most of the guys in the 68th won’t take people’s less-24s. They know that’s not right. I mean a few guys will. The ones you’d expect. I guess, it gets really easy to get a promotion if you do it, even, like, once, so that’s why. I guess they hope all the higher-ups will eventually be those guys, who’ve done it at least once and know what it’s like. But so now they have Feds come down here and chase people around, make a big fuss, tell everyone they don’t just get to obey the laws they like, your less-24s are the next generation’s domestic threats, that’s how we got into this mess and blah blah blah.

“I mean it’s literally word for word the same lecture from each of these interchangeable assholes. It’s not always the same guy but it might as well be. They go home after a few days and we get to clean it up and of course everybody fucking hates us because of them.” The cop empties his tumbler. “I had a domestic homicide last month, I couldn’t even get the *neighbors* to talk to me. They just ‘weren’t home.’ I mean what am I, gonna bang on people’s door shouting ‘I know you’re in there’ like somebody’s crazy drunk boyfriend? That one’s still open. Probably will be until the guy does something else. I mean, I know who did it. The whole family knows. But I have no evidence. Because nobody trusts anybody now.

“So yeah the Rahebs are gone somewhere. I don’t know where, but at least whoever’s there’s got good food.” The cop grins and looks at Peter for affirmation and doesn’t get it. “It’s fucked up, though,” he concedes. “We all know it.”

*****

7. Ana finds Peter before anyone else does. He is hungover, or rather, has been drunk all night, and is too stupid with it to fight her taking away the bottle, which, blessedly, still holds enough liquid to suggest that Peter will live. She gives him the bag of McDonalds she really, really wanted to eat herself, because who needs to take your ungrateful not-a-boyfriend to the ER for alcohol poisoning first thing on Tuesday. He can chew, at least, she observes. She considers telling him he has a class today and thinks better of it; instead she guides him up to Lewis Rathburn’s office, which is empty, and arranges him on the pine-and-vinyl love seat opposite the window, under a framed photo of Richard Feynman at the chalkboard. She goes to the bathroom, dumps out the ridiculous spheroid bottle of Blanton’s into the sink and fills it with water, then puts it next to the love seat on the floor. He says something she likes to believe is “thank you.”

She goes back downstairs to survey the mess; Peter appears to have smashed poor old Lewis’s pride and joy, which he swore up and down proved the existence of theoretical particles by emitting them, which Ana’s own mentor, the amazing Harriet King, often said was putting the cart before the horse, with a chortle that makes Ana hate her a little. Harriet is a truly gifted scientist, someone for whom the answers to brain-destroyingly complex logarithmic equations are as self-evident as the color of a flower. Ana has the fingerprint of this quality on her own brain, too, she knows; it is not a trait much admired in women, who do not get to be irascible geniuses, only bitches. The sorority of arithmetic savants is a small one and she is happy for her membership in it, though she does not agree with Harriet that Lewis’s penchant for gadget construction makes his intellect less pure. She wonders if this dumb thing really did give off Cherenkov radiation. She resolves to leave it for whoever comes down to the lab next. Perhaps it will be the soulless asshole cops who refuse to protect the locals from the less-24s policy the way they swore they would. Perhaps it will fuck up their investigation. Perhaps they will unjustly imprison Peter, who would love that.

Ana sighs and picks up the broken pieces of the machine and puts them in the HAZARDOUS bin, wincing each time she touches something and leaves a fingerprint. There is a janitor’s cart outside, so Ana props the pipe wrench up next to the broom and leaves. She is late for class; her good deed for the day is done.

*****

1. In the dream, in a white room, Maria sees a box made of plywood and pine two-by-four frames, a blue paint bucket filled with water on a stool next to it. A hose from the bucket leads into the box, and two wires, one black and one red, lead into the top of the box from a disassembled electrical outlet in the wall. The box is shorter than she is. She realizes Josh is with her, standing knee-high next to her. He does not exactly walk yet so much as hurtle, every journey as likely as not to end with him on all fours laughing and saying “Whoops!” His vocabulary is limited, and that word is his favorite.

Maria looks at the box for a long time. Josh watches, too. It is a strange sight and he has a fistful of sweatpant for consolation and stability. Then, without warning, the box’s sides slide away smoothly, screws sheared off with little pinging sounds, each moving softly in a different direction. Inside the box, curled into the fetal position, is her husband Yusuf’s uncle Ara, who has been expected by his sister Samia for months now. Samia is one of Yusuf’s aunts; Yusuf has a huge family but no parents – everyone is an uncle or an aunt or a cousin.

Maria has never met Ara but she knows this is him; she can tell by his wings of blue flame. Five large, shiny spiders are walking on him, on his hip and his flank and the side of his neck, questing worriedly, unsure of where they are and why. Ara lifts his head and looks over at Maria and smiles happily. He brushes the spiders off his body and tries to stand up, though he staggers as he does. He seems not to have stood for a long time.

She feels the telltale release in her pantleg as Josh starts the voyage toward Uncle Ara and his spiders. An odd thing about her little boy is that he must help anyone who seems unhappy, immediately, whether it is another child with a skinned knee or Yusuf staring glumly at his phone. Usually he helps by patting the appendage closest to him, which, she admits, is comforting. She tries to tell him no, but her mouth has something wadded up inside it. Ara is on one knee, breathing heavily; Josh topples in his direction, falling twice and pushing himself back up until he reaches his second cousin and pats his calf with a chubby hand. Maria loves him so much. She spits out the object in her mouth – it is a little scroll of what feels like leather. She opens it, looks at it, and then up at Josh and Ara. One by one, the spiders pick their way fussily up the electrical cords and make their way into the wall. Ara is sitting more easily and Josh is trying to climb up his knee. Ara streches his wings luxuriously; the blue light from them intensifies, and from it Maria can hear a voice.

“…couple who run the falafel place, the one on 95th and 5th,” the voice is saying. “I had to empty the whole store out, Jesus. Jesus. It was so awful, Lewis. Somebody thought there were hidden babies there. I don’t know, as a nation, what we’re…”

There is more but Maria cannot make it out. Ara is motioning with one hand for her to sit next to him, the other hand steadying Josh, who is standing on Ara’s lap with a loook of concentration on his face as he tries to balance.

Maria sits down before Ara, who smiles. He bends to pick up Josh and Maria can see horrible burns on his back, where his wings meet his shoulders.

The voice intensifies but it is harder to hear; Josh jumps from Ara’s hands to Maria’s lap, where she almost doesn’t catch him. He chuckles and she and Ara share a smile. Then Yusuf is shaking her awake.

“We have to go,” Yusuf says. He has been watching TV they bought at the pawnshop, he tells her, the one that doesn’t work. It started ringing, he said, he’d thought it was his phone, but when he answered the phone, the broken TV showed a weird program, just a guy slightly offscreen talking about them, about how the police know they’re there. It must be a way to freak us out, Yusuf says. The whole thing was tinted blue, for some reason. It was on a really high channel that usually just gets static. “Whoever was talking clearly thinks my aunt and uncle are dead,” he says.

“Baby, you were dreaming,” Maria tells him. “I had a dream, too. It was a good day, remember? They let Ara out. Maybe it’s not going to be that bad.

“That’s a good idea,” Yusuf says, and pulls out his phone. He has a conversation in Syriac, which Maria hates; she knows more than he thinks she knows, though. She can tell that it is Ara on the other end. She goes and picks up the baby, who seems just fine with bunking in the basement under a deli with only a space heater and some stuffed animals Maria hopes to throw out very, very soon. Lately Yusuf has become obsessed with “go bags” and emergency first aid; Maria has insisted they make a special go bag for the baby. It is powder blue and has elephants on it and Yusuf pretends to be annoyed by it, but he also stocks it with applesauce. Josh is not sleeping, but not crying, either. He is so good.

“Let’s go. Ara will meet us. He can get a boat tonight.”

“Go where?” Maria asks.

“Down the coast,” Yusuf answers. “Ara knows a place.”

There is noise above them; up the ladder, Maria can see blue and red lights through the crack in the hatch that opens on to the sidewalk.

*****

2. ABSTRACT: A tachyon is a theoretical particle that can travel faster than light, necessitating a receiver-retransmitter of a tachyon or tachyon impression, here assumed to be Cherenkov radiation, that must receive-retransmit those impressions before their emission. It is therefore assumed to collapse a number of necessary superpositions, invalidating probability-based branches of contemporary physical scienctific inquiry including the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model and regressing the entirety of particle physics as far back as the Newtonian era. In this paper I will argue for the continued existence of superpositions even with tachyon interference. In this paper I propose that the act of turning on the receiver-retransmitter now running in our physics department, where it broadcasts on a number of known and demonstrably safe EM spectra, in fact heralds a new epoch in physical science. Its transmissions are for now garbled by their backward journey but, I will here demonstrate, inarguably of human origin. These transmissions cannot affect a past in which there is no receiver to witness them and so cannot correct mistakes or alter our lives. Nevertheless as the loop of communication with our children and our children’s children widens, our knowledge might increase infinitely, as we are able to separate generations of communication doubtless being sent back to us, to this one, most vital point in our history. It is a difficult task but I hope I will have the help of my colleagues in it. These moments of understanding are rare in the sciences, and often received with fear and anger by the men and women who have worked so diligently to understand the model I will show has failed. The new model, I believe with the full weight of my understanding, is good news for all people.

*****

3. Having been warned in a dream, Yusuf goes first across the walkway, quickly. Maria follows, with Josh concealed in a carrier under a big black poncho. They descend the stairs to the sidewalk that borders the water. When he was a boy Yusuf would have loved the thought of leaping across it, a knife in his teeth, onto the rocks to board the stealthy boat with his valiant cousin Ara. Now he cannot get enough air into his lungs and feels guilt with every step he takes away from his beloved and their child. Ara sees him; he lies low in the boat. There is an old white man fishing a few yards away.

He can hear sirens behind him.

What Evil Lurks in The Hearts of Men

mandarin

I. 

It’s hard to think of a more perfect synecdoche for the American superhero comics industry than C.B. Cebulski, recently named editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, admitting his first day on the job that he spent more than a year writing comics under the name Akira Yoshida in what we’ll generously call a Japanese idiom.

Cebulski, of course, is not Japanese.

According to comics columnist Rich Johnston, who broke the story through industry news outlet Bleeding Cool, Marvel talked up “Akira Yoshida” as though he was a one-in-a-million prodigy; “He was someone from non-English speaking country who could write well for an American audience — something Marvel had struggled with in the past when seeking authentic voices,” Johnston recalls being told. 

“Yoshida” was writing Japanese-flavored work for Marvel about the villainous ninja clan called The Hand in 2004 near the beginning of a manga boom in the US book market. Manga had become especially popular among younger readers and women; Cebulski’s tenure as editor of Marvel’s manga efforts—the company welcomed him to the fold as “C.B.-san” in a press release—had not brought the company the new market it expected.

As a fake Japanese man, Cebulski got quite a bit of work set in Japan and about Marvel’s Asian characters, of whom there are many. The Hand are a creation of writer-artist Frank Miller; other Asian or Asian-ish characters are the work of Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and others white artists. Some—Miller especially—have worked to bring Japanese work to American readers and to absorb not just stereotypes but artistic substance from Japan’s own venerable comics traditions; assessing their accomplishments alongside the work of their peers in Japan is complicated.

But only Cebulski managed to create an Asian character who literally drew a paycheck for him.

Cebulski started out working on a Manga-ish series called Darkstalkers for Canadian artist Pat Lee’s now-defunct company Dreamwave. When he got to Marvel, Cebulski gave a lengthy interview in character as Yoshida, saying he’d been introduced to American comics by his father, who worked in “international business” and would bring them home to Japan from trips abroad. 

People claimed to have seen Yoshida in Marvel’s offices; according to Johnston, that person was a Japanese translator. For years, editor Mike Marts swore blind he’d eaten lunch with Cebulski’s pseudonym; he, too, may have dined with the translator.

II.

Orientalism—the patronizing depiction of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures in Western literature—is older than C.B. Cebulski; it’s older than Marvel Comics, too. It’s certainly older than pulp characters that filled matinees and newsstands in the 1930’s but it might be worthwhile to start with those rather than trudge all the way back to Kipling and Sax Rohmer, because the pulps are where comics were born. 

The Shadow learned how to render himself invisible “years ago in the Orient.” Doc Savage found himself embroiled in some plot or other in Asia or on the Arabian peninsula about twice a week. Flash Gordon battled a space emperor with long, thin mustaches called Ming the Merciless. The Green Hornet’s martial artist houseboy Kato was so much cooler than the Hornet himself that the role catapulted Bruce Lee to stardom when the character got a TV show in the 1960’s, but (white) billionaire playboy Britt Reid was in charge in the 1930’s and he stayed the boss until very recently.

That’s not to say that these characters and stories aren’t fun. They’re loads of fun. Orientalist window dressing is one of a dozen expedient narrative gimmicks to get the reader to buy Shiwan Khan’s piranha-infested moat or to explain away ridiculous nonsense like the neato power to read minds. It’s effective because the reader is likely to think, “Oh yeah, that sounds like something that would happen in a mysterious place where I don’t speak the language.”

The problem with that narrative device and not with, say, a time machine, is that there are people underneath it, with stories that aren’t about piranhas. Some of them even create comic books in a distinct tradition.

Though they share DNA, contemporary superhero comics differ from pulps in that they are about a whole new class of character, rather than a wealthy eccentric who makes the New York crime blotter more exciting. Among superheroes, Orientalist caricatures are presented alongside aliens, demigods and robots—this guy has claws that come out of his knuckles, that one is a despotic cyborg from outer space, and that one… well, that one’s Chinese. 

Marvel has tried to smooth this sort of thing over but it’s hard to know which way to jump; the grief the company caught for casting a white woman as Doctor Strange’s mystic mentor The Ancient One is probably nothing compared to the wrath that would have rained down on it for casting a person of Asian descent in the role. And, largely for the worse, the Mysterious Asian is integral to Disney’s precious proprietary stockpile of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko creations. Most people have forgotten that Mickey Mouse is, at base, a blackface caricature; it will take a while longer to forget that Iron Man spent many, many issues fighting The Mandarin.

III.

Authorial impersonation is practically its own genre of prank, and it exists on a continuum of outrageousness from clever commentary to queasy appropriation, depending on who is doing it, how, and why. Stephen King, on being told that the horror market could only sustain a single book a year bearing his name, consigned his pulpier efforts to a lesser byline, Richard Bachman. J. K. Rowling, anxious to keep writing murder mysteries after her first attempt failed to elude the shadow of Harry Potter, began publishing mystery fiction under the name Robert Galbraith. 

These deceptions are harmless, even instructive—King’s second name became such an open secret that he developed a distinctive style for it. Rowling ignited a conversation about whether or not her work would have been received as well had it had a woman’s name on the cover instead of man’s (it probably would have, so long as it wasn’t Rowling’s own; the best authors in the mystery genre are and have nearly always been women).

But there are less comfortable examples. A poet named Yi-Fen Chou published a poem called “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” that was selected for the 2015 Best American Poetry collection; Chou turned out to be a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson, who was hoping he could get his poem read more closely if he could convince editors it was the work of a person belonging to an underrepresented minority. Yale’s Joe Scanlan, who is also white, created the character of a black artist named “Donelle Woodford” to whom he credited some of his own collage work, and who was played by black actresses who wrote the character with him. In an interview he said he’d hoped the project would prove that “a white man and two black women can acknowledge their unequal power relations and still decide to happily work together, because something might be accomplished that is greater than that inequity.”

Cebulski’s deception is a sort of hybrid of those two pranks, combining Hudson’s invidious aspirations with Scanlan’s theatrical flair, and all in a professional context far shorter on irony than the conceptual art world. 

The notoriously tyrannical Bill Jemas, at the time occupying the editor-in-chief job to which Cebulski has just been elevated, would surely have fired Cebulski, whose small, experimental imprint that wasn’t working, for writing comics freelance under his own name. Marvel editors weren’t allowed to write for their colleagues, either. 

So Cebulski created a character who, in hindsight, looks about as plausible as Ming the Merciless: an Asian guy who writes in an exactly American style and makes a lot of mistakes about Japanese culture, which supposedly produced him. From his position overseeing Marvel’s attempts to reach American fans of Asian culture, Cebulski would have understood the demand among editors for competently written stories that could exploit the growing popularity of manga, and he really had lived in Japan. 

It was a bad decision, but one that made a certain amount of tactical sense: That land over there, where I don’t speak the language and mysterious things often happen—perhaps it produced this extremely implausible person who appeared out of thin air with the ability to decorate Western comics plots with detailed manga window dressing.

IV.

Pulp characters have been through a number of resurrections; they’re quite durable, like superheroes, but they’re also troublesome. They are different from superheroes, who live in fantasy worlds with rules that don’t resemble out own at all. Both are inextricable from the need for a faraway land filled with villains, heroines, and magic, but pulps are, perhaps, a little more honest about where that desire actually points: The reader believes deep inside that this land is somewhere close by, on earth, if we could only reach it—not in the shadow dimensions or on a distant planet. Our neighbor who talks funny—we think he’s a cartoon villain with a long mustache. This sort of belief is, I would say, a primal, fundamental cruelty, not a product of culture.

It is an evil, not to put too fine a point on it, that lurks in the hearts of men.

Cebulski’s grift succeeded because it depended on his readers—and, apparently, some of his bosses—to approach Yoshida they way they would a foreigner, with an expectation of the exotic and a patience for amateurism. “It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure,” Cebulski told Johnston. “I was young and naïve and had a lot to learn back then.”

There should be space for marginalized artists, and it shouldn’t be taken away so that white people using pseudonyms can benefit from low expectations while they learn about communication. But it’s worth understanding why Cebulski was able to do this so easily in the first place: This isn’t a problem with comics. It’s a problem with people who love them.

And with people generally—me, for example. I love the pulps. I love the old ones and I like reading the new ones and every time I pick up a new reimagining filled with the exploits of some problematic old hero, I hope that the author will have been able to rescue him from the embarrassing menace of Shiwan Khan, Fu Manchu, Ming or Akira Yoshida.

These villains were invented to be inscrutable and sly, and it turns out they are wilier than ever their inventors intended—they keep on killing the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Green Hornet with Western bigotries that look paler and less appetizing each time. We know how to read old adventure stories, forgivingly or prosecutorially as we see fit, but we don’t quite know how to write new ones yet. We can create new characters, but we can’t escape our influences, whether or not they’re racist. Try to purify art, and you’ll destroy it. Start over with a different set of matinee idols, and they will turn out to have feet of clay, as well. 

Frank Miller proposed an interesting solution to some of these tensions with Sin City, a hard-boiled detective series that incorporates the visual grammar of manga. His peers Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, too, have spent twenty years tirelessly trying to find progressive expressions for old adventure novels for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turning the original white savior, Ayesha from H Rider Haggard’s “She,” into a cold-blooded villainess while making Jules Verne’s terrifying Captain Nemo into the patriarch of a heroic dynasty of stateless Indian nobility. These are answers to the questions of appropriation and racism that come not just from careful study of art, but from moral reflection, as well.

The writer Garth Ennis reworked the Shadow recently, setting most of his story in meticulously accurate historical renderings of of China and Japan, with the Shadow himself the weird foreigner. It’s a clever inversion, drawn by Aaron Campbell; while it doesn’t work completely, Ennis has an unobstructed vision for what makes the Shadow tick, and that gives the tale a foundational honesty that has a greater capacity to redeem its beloved lead character than all the self-righteous think pieces on the internet.

It’s this: One of the villains, a likable Chinese gangster named Kondo, knows the Shadow from before he was Lamont Cranston. What secrets, Kondo asks him during their showdown, did the Shadow learn when he learned to cloud men’s minds?  

“Whoever it was. Wherever they took you,” Kondo asks. “What the hell did they make you into?” Knowing his enemy is about to die, the Shadow finally tells him the whole truth.

“They taught me to recognize evil in the hearts of men,” he says, “by looking into my own.”

Comics 10/24

the wild storm.jpg
Void, from The Wild Storm #3 variant by Jim Lee
  1. Kill or Be Killed, the new series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is two paperbacks’ worth of issues deep and so I picked the first volume up. Brubaker and Phillips remind me very much of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, in that they pair a consummately adequate writer with an artist who is doing something really rare and wonderful and stylish and so I tend to endure the plotting and dialogue rather than enjoy it, but it doesn’t matter at all when faced with the beautiful art. Phillips, I think, is drawing with a computer now—there’s a telltale thing that happens when you digitize line widths that makes them come out weirdly uniform. It looks worse on some artists than others—Jesus Merino’s Astro City stuff is a bit distracting, for example—but Phillips pulls it off. Anyway I feel like I should briefly drop in a disclaimer observing that neither Loeb nor Brubaker’s writing is contemptible, merely undistinguished to a degree that constantly reminds a reader that the script would suffer not even a little as a teleplay. But those two guys are the primary collaborators of two really astounding artists so I recommend Loeb’s Hulk: Gray and Catwoman: When in Rome—both very solid, fun-to-read books—and Brubaker’s Sleeper and Fatale, the former being a clever superhero narrative and the latter being a time-hopping horror-crime tale that I really enjoyed. I’ve found Brubaker’s warmed-over roman noir style to be kind of samey, though, and I enjoyed The Fade Out basically in spite of him; his protagonists are always such insufferable dickheads. This time he may have out-dickheaded himself: His main character, Dylan, is a vigilante who runs around blowing away “bad” people; Brubaker is not a dummy and the book is loudly telegrpahing that it will question what exactly it means to be a bad person, and there is a supernatural aspect to our hero’s motivation. The problem is the hero: He is not merely a murdering punk but also the whiniest little incel in comics and the net effect, which I’m not sure is intentional, is that he seems like someone who actually would go on a killing spree on an Eliot Rodger model. Anyway the art is terrific.
    1a. Actually please just read Graham Chaffee’s fantastic To Have and To Hold from earlier this year instead. It’s very much as if James M Cain wrote comics.
  2. Along thematically similar lines but as different as possible in execution, Rick Veitch has finally returned to comics publishing through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, and let me tell you, demand it I do. Veitch is one of the most talented cartoonists alive and his incredibly weird sensibility has given the world some graphic novels that I think will probably stand the test of time alongside crazy shit like Jim Woodring’s beautiful Disneyfied hallucinations. This time his subject is a sort-of-Superboy character with a lot of the same gross impulses as the Kill or Be Killed protag, but much stranger. Veitch has written two mind-meltingly weird but ultimately cohesive superhero graphic novels, Brat Pack and The One, the first being an intensely sordid deconstruction of all the sexual undertones in comics and a solidly pointed piece of industry criticism, to boot; the second is just a good graphic novel about the evolutionary end of humanity. One thing I truly love about Veitch is that he’s perfectly happy imagining changes to the status quo in his narrative so huge that they end the story, or the industry, or the species, and I guess it’s inevitable that his new book, Kid Maximortal, would attempt to end the superhero genre. It’s a sequel of sorts to his Superman riff, The Maximortal, which I believe is due for a new edition from IDW, and both read a lot like literary criticism, if literary criticism had fun characters and didn’t make any more sense than it had to. The new book has two plot threads totally overcome by heavily symbolic surrealism and a third, based on the life of Jack Kirby, that is an expertly rendered and deeply felt bit of realism. I wish the whole thing cohered narratively with more attention to plot and character and less to theme. Veitch isn’t bad at plot or character; he’s just less interested in them than he is in, it has to be said, the extremely well-traveled path of comics-as-comics-criticism. It’s still worth reading and has a ton of goodies in the back, among them his manifesto and a bunch of pin-ups of Swamp Thing and his and Alan Moore’s wonderful Greyshirt character, as well as a terrific old story from Heavy Metal where the robot characters speak in bar codes. I recommend it very, very highly, if not unreservedly.
  3. I discovered to my delight that I’m a book behind on Kurt Busiek’s consistently good Astro City; the series is always so much fun that I find myself occasionally saving it for a day when I’m depressed. Busiek is one of the best pure writers of superheroes alive; Alan Moore is, at his very best, a masterly horror writer, and Neil Gaiman is a fantasist, but Busiek seems to have been genetically engineered for the sole purpose of writing colorful super-characters, and the 13th volume of the series, Honor Guard, sees him stretching out into different varieties. One thing that distinguishes Busiek from other contemporary superhero writers is that he remembers there are influences deserving of his (and the reader’s) attention beyond Jack Kirby. There’s a quasi-Edgar Rice Burroughs story in this book, and one with some anime influence, and a less successful tale about an Australian guy with the power to shrink. It’s a catch-all collection, bringing together a bunch of one-off stories, and I miss one-off stories in these days of infinitely long crossover series, so I was pretty happy to read it. The art is by Jesus Merino, as mentioned above, with Tom Grummett, one of DC’s better and least-sung workhorses, and a couple of other guys I’d never heard of—Joe Infurnari and Gary Chaloner. The final story is a real knockout, and repositions an old foe of the super-team of the title as a new ally; it’s surprisingly moving. I’m looking forward to digging in to that 14th volume I hadn’t spotted on the shelves yet.
  4. As the retro marketing train slowly and disturbingly approaches my young adulthood I keep running across comics projects that play on my fond memories of 1990’s comics with upsetting precision. The best of these is absolutely The Wild Storm, a 24-issue, ugh, maxi-series, I’m sorry for that word, it sounds like an expensive bacteria panel your doctor runs when his first two diagnoses fail, merging all the disparate high-concept characters from Jim Lee’s ridiculous Wildstorm Universe into a single cohesive narrative. This is an insane task undertaken by an insane man, Warren Ellis, who remains a writer whose work I will read in pretty much any form, prose or comics. Ellis is particularly interesting because he and Alan Moore came along at a time when Wildstorm, which had formed because Lee and a few other artists were sick of being shortchanged by Marvel and wanted to own the characters they drew, needed some solid writing to guide what would otherwise have continued to be very shoddy knock-offs of Marvel’s several X-Men teams. The comics had been mildly fun for a while before Moore and Ellis came along but the artists had largely either moved on to greener pastures or gotten so wealthy they didn’t need to work for a page rate anymore, and without Lee’s over-rendered art, it was clear that there wasn’t a lot holding, say, the WildC.A.T.S together conceptually. Moore and Ellis reinvented the WildC.A.T.S and Stormwatch respectively and turned the whole superhero universe into a big Le Carré-but-with-heat-vision spy story of double agents and shadowy intelligence operations that stretched across time and space in sci-fi ways. It was great; I still go back and reread old issues from time to time, and it launched a number of worthy careers, notably Brubaker and Phillips’s (see above). In the new book, Ellis, with a really remarkable and precise artist named Jon-Davis Hunt, is weaving together a big, action-packed super-narrative that thus far focuses on Angela Spica, a character who went by The Engineer in Ellis’s great superhero book The Authority 17 years ago, and treats the various super-teams as rival intelligence firms looking for competitive advantages with Angie and her budding science-powers caught in the middle. I dig it a lot.
  5. Garth Ennis is suddenly everywhere: With the mildly shadowy comics company Aftershock, he has a moderately preachy spy-comedy comic called Jimmy’s Bastards with art by Russ Braun, whom I like (I find this book very funny not least because of Braun’s gift for faces; many of you may not, which would be reasonable, and I may be ashamed that I found it funny in ten years, the way I feel about Ennis and the late Steve Dillon’s Preacher now); he’s doing a very enjoyable Hanna-Barbera-branded Dastardly and Muttley comic for DC because God is cruel; and best of all, he’s returned to a character everyone now loves to hate because of the dumb Netflix TV show, The Punisher. Disclosure: I love The Punisher. I am a pacifist and do not like violence in real life one little bit but Ennis’s take on the character is just devastating in the pathos he manages to wring from a stoic serial killer. Part of it is that Ennis is an annoying military history wonk and he can go toe-to-toe with anybody who cares to try on the topic of World War II aircraft or machine gun manufacturing contracts (this is what ruined the pacing of big sections of his series The Boys at Dynamite, incidentally; he got so interested in making up plausible fake military-historical details that he completely derailed the story he was telling), and Frank Castle—The Punisher—is a canonically a Vietnam veteran. So Ennis has set Punisher: The Platoon during the legendary Tet Offensive, and it’s killer so far, largely because he’s working with the amazing Goran Parlov, an artist who didn’t get a chance to hit his stride while he was working monthly with Ennis on the last few arcs of his justly celebrated Punisher: MAX run, almost certainly because of deadlines. Even there, he was doing suspiciously good work; it turns out that when he has a decent lead time, his stuff is genuinely beautiful. (Attentive readers already knew this from Starlight, but Ennis writes a better story than Mark Millar in general.)
  6. I thought I’d mention that DC has reprinted Alan Davis’s gorgeous JLA: The Nail series in an oversized hardcover; it’s a spectacular book and Davis deserves a place in the pantheon alongside other writer-artists of superhero stuff like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. For a few years not long ago Marvel seemed to happily publish basically whatever Davis wanted to draw; that was a good policy and I hope they re-adopt it or someone else comes along to do likewise. Anyway I thought I’d list my favorite Justice League stories because that dumb movie is coming out. Here they are:
    1. JLA/Avengers
    2. The Nail
    3. JLA: Earth-2
    4. Heaven’s Ladder
    5. New Maps of Hell
    6. Formerly Known as the Justice League
    There’s only six of ’em. Them’s the breaks.

Stray Thoughts 10/15

dirty harvey

  1. Several actresses say the vastly wealthy and influential movie producer Harvey Weinstein raped them. Further reporting by Ronan Farrow, himself something of an expert on sexual malpractice among celebrities, suggests that Weinstein had most of the movie industry help him arrange liaisons, often in hotels, with young women who wanted to act or had begun to act, and then he tried to coerce them into giving him “massages” or watching him jerk off or having sex with him, and when he could, he raped them. Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, two women who, queasily, were 1990’s avatars of the same very particular kind of noirish beauty—dark-haired and -eyed, petite, pale, tattooed—have accused him of forcing himself on them. The details are annihilatingly vile: Argento said that she despairingly returned to Weinstein to give him more sex after he first raped her, because she felt that she had to. Everybody knew, and everybody is shocked; everybody helped, and everybody is concerned. It is a web of complicity and wickedness that stretches through the film and television industries and crosses borders into real world-political power, which, make no mistake, Weinstein had; the details of the fat, wealthy, legendarily crass producer forcing himself on starlet after starlet have a sort of operatic, Dickensian putrescence about them. Weinstein’s professional demise—and he has been expelled from the Academy and denounced by all of his closest colleagues including his brother—is said to be the first of many, but it feels too late.
  2. What are we to do with his movies? One of the dangers not just to his victims but to the world of allowing a voracious sexual predator to carry on unopposed for decades is that his legacy, however tainted, must be reckoned with, because it is so huge. Does he deform the entire canon? It’s a question that is often asked of work by, say, Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, but those men are individuals and their work can be isolated and watched with a responsible skepticism. Weinstein had approval over a staggering number of films and he legendarily recut many of them—what does that mean?
  3. Shortly after the Weinstein piece broke, a Buzzfeed article announced the existence of a list of “Shitty Media Men” who had mistreated the anonymous women who contributed to the list. The bar for adding a name was apparently very low; the accusations ranged from “flirting” to “creepy af in the DMs” to anal rape, and choking a woman unconscious, according to multiple writeups by women who had presumably seen the list. I haven’t seen it; I’m told it was expressly forbidden to share the list with a man though some women seem to have done so. I don’t have access to what people have been calling “the whisper network” the way women do but I have good women friends who’ve confided the occasional coded warning about more than one high-level male journalist, and of course I listen to gossip; there are people I’m curious about. A male friend who’s been looking for work for a long time worried to me that he’d done or said something wrong and not known about it and that perhaps this was why he was having such trouble getting hired; I understand his queasiness—the job market in journalism is dreadful right now and if you’re naturally awkward or even inclined to worry that you’re awkward, you’re now terrified that someone mistook your awkwardness for a gross come-on that is being circulated among people who might be looking at your resume with no chance for you to correct the record or even apologize. I also understand that this seems like a perfectly acceptable risk to the people whose physical safety is on the line.
  4. There is a huge clash of cultures going on quietly in journalism at the moment, between, on the one side, the crabby, middle-aged, proudly dysfunctional generation of forty- and fiftysomething men and women—but mostly men—who, now un-rehireable, cling to jobs for which they fought their way through the ranks by being harder-nosed and less shockable and more dogged than all their peers; on the other are the  serious, health-conscious, aggressively well-adjusted, perfectly dressed, workaholic, politically sensitive generation of twentysomething women—and they are almost all women—going to absolute war for $30k-a-year jobs covering the open sewers of politics and culture. The former are flamboyant and uncensored in their personal lives and meticulous and dry in their prose and the latter are bomb-throwing opinionators on the page and champions of workplace hospitality in person, and the two groups don’t particularly like each other, largely because of the economic scarcity created by the ongoing slow-motion collapse of the industry. Each group is fanatically idealistic and each rolls its eyes at the other. And the former, frankly, is used to being aggressive and boorish and not suffering any consequences and now it is probably time to pay the piper; if the latter is often prosecutorial, naive and self-righteous, it seems to contain fewer actual rapists and it certainly won’t countenance them when they’re sniffed out. They need older allies, and male ones.
  5. Here is a grotesque article by Adrian Vermuele, a conservative Catholic who holds an endowed professorship at Harvard Law. In it, Vermuele praises the erudition and moral acumen of Carl Schmitt, the chief jurist of the Nazi Reich, while supposedly deploring everything Schmitt’s moral acumen directed him to do, namely support the Nazi Party until 1936. Schmitt’s support was rewarded, as Vermuele notes, with “thirty pieces of silver;” those pieces were hand-delivered by Hermann Goering, who gave Schmitt a position at the University of Berlin recently vacated by an exiled Jewish social-democrat named Herman Heller, among many other tainted honors. Incredibly, Vermuele seems to think Schmitt is a source worth citing on the topic of moral compromise and its limits; he suggests making expedient political alliances based on Schmitt’s 1923 essay about Catholicism.
    I’m only going to say this once but I hope anyone reading this will pay close attention: If your church is slowly Nazifying and the chief thinker of your nation’s nascent far-right movement, Steve Bannon, claims to be a member of it to almost no objection, and, rather than devote all your energies to expelling that person and everyone who agrees with him from fellowship, you choose to whine about creeping progressivism, Jesus and I think you would be better off with a millstone around your neck. That is all.
  6. On Thursday while I was listening to CNN play, repeatedly, the recording of Harvey Weinstein trying to browbeat an Italian 22-year-old into fucking him, I suddenly realized that many years ago a slightly older man had made a point of touching me more and more intimately and kissing me surreptitiously at times when I couldn’t object without making a scene, often while we were around other people in our peer group who might have thought it was consensual because he had spread rumors about my sexuality. Or they might have felt too awkward to interfere. Perhaps they didn’t notice. Without ever indicating that he knew what he was doing, he explained to me that he had done similar things as an authority figure and gotten into trouble for it, which made him fear for his safety. I let him touch me because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to damage our relationship, which was the key to a lot of other relationships, which he knew; he also knew that I was straight and I tried to remind him of this. I let him kiss me without comment at least once though I certainly didn’t kiss him back and strategized about how to avoid being near him after that (I failed in that). Ultimately he stopped because a woman I was friends with publicly told him to, not because I was brave enough to stop him, because I wasn’t.  When I told him privately afterward that yes, I wanted him to stop, he grew very angry with me and spent several months after that pointedly excluding me from things our friends were doing together. Realizing that this was not misunderstanding but some mild form of predation, years later, feels deeply bathetic; what a dumb thing to be upset about. It was unwanted kissing and feeling my leg, and then some unpleasant social consequences; that was all. I wasn’t a child, I was a young man. Nobody raped me. Women I know personally or professionally have been through so much worse, some of them several times. I do know it made me ashamed of myself for a long time and it took many years for me even to identify the behavior. I feel conflicted even writing this much about it; gay men are in much more difficult circumstances by default than straight ones—what right do I have to share even these details? What if they identify him to the few people we still mutually know? What if he reads this and recognizes himself? Will he suffer consequences for something he probably regrets and I doubt he ever did again? I don’t know. Ultimately I do know that it happened to me, so I get to talk about it.
  7. Of course, the question of where to do the talking is a reasonable one. There aren’t really informal networks of conversation around this stuff for men; there are men-only abuse survivor support groups but they tend to be for people who have suffered unspeakable, unforgivable things. Women, much better at this sort of thing, shut men out for understandable reasons. Being male feels inescapably shameful; one thing women have said is that men rarely suffer consequences for sexual impropriety but if you have any sort of a soul there are internal emotional consequences, both for collective guilt at the privilege of manhood, for memory, of mean or badly calibrated jokes, and then of course there is the garden-variety fear and shame that accompanies the memory of being weak or gullible enough to fall prey to another man, which is a peculiar kind of exceptionally humiliating defeat. And then there’s the feeling that it’s wrong to call down another man for doing something like that—what if he didn’t know he’d done it? Do you want every unkind thing you’ve ever said or done trotted out? No, of course not. Better to be silent. These are all emotional consequences, not financial or physical consequences, and perhaps it’s not right to conflate all of them, but they are all weirdly, inescapably a part of the complex and isolating trap of masculine sexuality. Patriarchy, ultimately, destroys everyone, men, women, children.
  8. Actually, men don’t really have a place to discuss sexual behavior at all beyond the conventional truck stop hooting and hollering we’re supposed to perform, more to ward off suspicion from each other than for the benefit of any women who are subjected to (and certainly unimpressed by) it. Luckily for me, I have very good, close male friends these days—not many, but a few—who can serve as sounding boards. It’s been mentioned more than once that the conversation about sexual assault and harassment tends to focus on women, as though it was a disease specific to their sex and not something men do to them. Why don’t men talk about it? Why don’t men call each other down for participating in it? One reason is that we often don’t know. Men don’t brag that they raped someone; they brag that they slept with someone. We are acculturated to spread myths of desirability about ourselves, not stories of cruelty, or at least that’s true in my circles. There do seem to be other circles, like the one in which the president moves, where it’s common practice to proclaim abuses as though they were conquests; men with a predator’s eye for weakness are usually astute enough to spot a potential narc, as well. So that’s the form of the problem.
  9. The form of the solution is to raise our sons better, I think—to encourage them to admire beauty, to value gentleness, to seek comity and peace. I love my own son more than I love my life, and I hope he grows up to rat out Harvey Weinstein.