When people ask what you’re story’s about, you have to be ready. You can’t hem and haw about orcs and trolls. You’ve got to hit them between the eyes with a concise and enticing description.
FLORIDA MAN: Gary
Duba’s having a bad day. There’s a snake in his toilet, a rabid
raccoon in the yard, and his girl Crystal’s in jail for getting
naked at a Waffle House and licking the manager. With his best
friend, Floyd, Gary sets out to sell his prized Barry Bonds rookie
card to raise the five hundred needed for bail. But things get out of
DREADFUL LEMON SKY: Around
four in the morning, Travis McGee is jarred awake by a breathless
ghost from his past: an old flame who needs a place to stash a
package full of cash. What’s in it for McGee? Ten grand and no
questions asked. Two weeks later, she’s dead.
HELMET HEAD: Nazi
DICK: Captain Ahab pursues a monomaniacal quest for revenge on Moby
Dick, the white whale which severed his leg.
I was Music Editor
of the Boston Phoenix back in the day. It was my job to go out night
after night, talk to musicians, and listen to their bands. One night
Les McCann was playing. Most people know his brilliant breakout hit,
“Compared To What,” with saxophonist Eddie Harris. Eddie wasn’t
with Les that night. At the end of the first set, he introduced his
side players. “On drums, Wilson Smith! On bass, Todd Jones! And on
guitar, #!@$Q@##$ Q#%#ESFAD.” The guitarist was Polish.
During the break, I
talked to Les. “How do you spell your guitarist’s name?” I
that interesting,” Les said. “I have three side players and you
only want to know the white guy’s name.”
I looked at my
notes. “On drums, Wilson Smith. On bass, Todd Jones.”
Sopranos is like watching a train wreck. Horrible but mesmerizing. At
the end of the series, only a handful of characters are likeable.
Tony Soprano is one of them because he’s charming, magnetic, and
empathic. When he says he loves Big Pussy or nephew Christopher, you
believe him, because he believes himself when he says it. That
doesn’t prevent him from killing them when it suits his interest.
Big Pussy bites in the second season because he was squealing for the
Feds. The same thing happens to Christopher’s fiance Adriana. Her
death was particularly horrible.
Most of the
characters have the impulse control of infants or mad dogs. Most of
them have scenes when they take something the wrong way, or the right
way, and explode in violence often with horrendous results. You
marvel. All these adults, most of them doing very well for
themselves, who can’t control themselves. But it is a criminal
enterprise. Violence is the glue that holds them together. Paulie,
Christoper, Bobby, Silvio, Vito, Janice, they all go off like hand
grenades spraying blood all over itself. I lost track of Tony’s
murders. The federal fink in the first season, the dumb shmuck who
did a drive-by on Christopher, Ralphie, and most deliciously, Richie,
who slugs Janice because he’s a thug and she’s a bitch. You hate
Richie from his first appearance. “Don’t give me those Manson
eyes!” He looks mean, like someone who has never enjoyed anything
but other people’s pain. So when Janice gets Richie’s gun and
shoots him twice, you cheer. He had it coming. Then Tony comes over
and cleans up after his sister. Early in the series, they dismembered
the bodies at the sausage factory and then… Shudder to think.
shags one gorgeous broad after another, despite his resemblance to
Little Huey. It’s his animal magnetism. He exudes power.
Gandolfini’s portrait is one of the great acting jobs. Every word
and gesture was natural. The other actors were great too, but it’s
Tony you remember.
Duba and his best friend Floyd Belmont sat on the deck of Gary’s
deluxe double-wide, raised four feet above Florida on cinder blocks
in case of flooding. Two hundred foot tractor chains stretched over
the house like massive belts, anchored in concrete plugs on either
side, in case of hurricane. The night was hot and humid, alive with
squadrons of mosquitoes dive bombing the deck, oblivious to the
citronella candles, tiki torches, yellow wrist bands, and ample
applications of Deet on both men’s fully tatted arms. Home-made
mosquito traps hung like obscene fruit from Gary’s hand-made
awning, stitched together from Harbor Freight tarps.
was just past eleven, Little Big Town playing on WBCW, Florida
Country Radio through the tinny speakers of an old Sony boom box Gary
picked up at a garage sale. The boys had been drinking shine, smoking
reefer, and snorting a little crushed oxy since nine, when Floyd had
arrived in his eight-year-old Chevy van with Belmont Pest Control
emblazoned on the side, along with his logo, a dead cockroach in a
mint green oval.
hawked and spat a loogie over the rail. “That fuckin’ bitch still
owes me three thou for her boob job. Only reason she dated me, so I’d
pay for her fuckin’ boob job.”
was five feet six, built like a fire hydrant, sideburns like a Civil
War general, chest, shoulders and back covered with black fur like a
gotta admit,” Gary said. “She’s got a nice rack.”
sipped shine, causing his Adam’s apple to bob up and down like a
bouncing basketball. Tall, bony, with thick, knobby wrists, a brush
mustache, and a full head of hair concealed beneath a cap, Gary was
the picture of Southern manhood. He wore a sleeveless Lynyrd Skynyrd
T-shirt showing off his tatted arms which included a skull with a
dagger through it, a skull with a snake through it, a heart with the
legend “Mom,” Johnny Cash, and barbed wire bracelets.
advice to you,” Gary said, “is not to worry about that skank. She
gone. Be grateful she’s out of your life and didn’t give you the
clap or something.”
lit a Camel. “I just wish I had that three thou. I could really use
at it this way. It’s worth three thou just to have her out of your
she’s dating some Cuban slickee boy from Coral Gables who says he
can get her modeling work. My ass. Only modeling she does is on a
pole with a G-string.”
what you get for dating a stripper.”
sucked a Dixie dry. “She told me she loved me!”
barked. “You told her you wouldn’t come in her mouth!”
belched luxuriously and reached inside his torn denims to scratch his
balls. “Got anything to eat?”
I became aware of Neil Hansen, aka “Spyder,” aka “Bannen,” when he began drawing Whisper for First Comics. Neil had a unique, dynamic style and I wanted to work with him. When he became available for Badger, I was thrilled. His Badgers, including “Kruisin’ With the King,” are among my favorites. When I wrote Punisher for Marvel, Neil did several issues and yearbooks. His work is instantly identifiable, like that of Steranko or Norm Breyfogle.
Neil visited me at my home in Madison and sat house while I was at a con. “As long as you’re here,” I said, “please draw a story.” The resulting eight-pager, “Hair of the Dog,” will finally see print in Ozzy Longoria’s horror anthology Gods and Monsters. You can find Ozzy on Facebook. Neil penciled, inked, and lettered. He created his own Epic series, Untamed. It is worth checking out for the jaw-dropping art.
I have hounded Neil over the years about drawing more comics, but as time passed, he drew less and less and the last time I asked him he said, “I’m sorry, Mike. I sat down to draw and it just wouldn’t come.” His last work was a series of Badger covers that appeared from IDW about ten years ago.
In the meantime, he worked as a caretaker for an old motel in Canada.
These days, Neil makes his living trading in domain names. He makes a good living.
baby sitting two dogs, a rottweiler and a husky. We have two dogs,
Bob and Mack. Bob is accident prone. Twice, he’s hurled himself on
to a metal flange and ripped himself open. The last time was on a
Sunday and the only place open was the Fort
Collins Veterinary Emergency and Rehabilitation Hospital. They
stitched him up. Five hundred and eighty-three dollars. I told Bob
that if he was going to injure himself, please do it on a weekday.
Bob was limping so I took him in. Torn ACL. They gave me two meds
that have to be administered twice daily.
rottweiler, has five meds that must be administered daily. The dogs
eat when I get up, around six. Four dogs, four bowls. All the dogs
are interested in the other dogs’ bowls. I prepare the bowls,
carefully secrete her pills in moist dog food. Bob gets two meds. I
carefully secrete his pills in moist dog food. I call each dog by
name and lay down the bowls in this order: Bob, Mack, Jess, and
Olivia. Then I stand guard to see nobody eats anybody else’s meal.
After they’re done, I pick up the pills they refused to eat, drill
a hold in string cheese, and hand them out.
Donnie Waits crouched by the rear bumper of Ralph Speece’s pickup,
cradling a baggie of pot to his chest and listening to his mother and
Ralph go at it through the open windows of their second-floor
apartment. The four-unit apartment building sat on the outskirts of
Gunderson, Wisconsin, a nowhere burg to which they’d moved three
weeks ago when Kate got a job as executive secretary to Frank Werner,
CEO of Werner’s Meats. The redbrick building was plunked down at
the edge of a cornfield across the street from a farm. Its nearest
neighbor was a tire wholesaler a quarter mile toward town. Donnie
wondered why a developer would build in such a spot.
don’t tell me what to do!” Ralph was raging inside. He was a cut
telephone lineman Kate had met at the gym, the latest in a long line
heard Kate talking low and intensely, the word “marijuana” rising
in volume. Ralph had promised not to bring marijuana into the house
or smoke anywhere around them lest Donnie find out. Too late for
that. Ralph had offered Donnie a toke the first time they were alone.
felt bad about swiping the baggie from Ralph’s truck, but Ralph
should have listened to Kate. The argument escalated. A door slammed.
Kate was giving Ralph the heave-ho, as she had so many others. Kate
was destined to go through life being disappointed by men, and that
ran for the cornfield and had reached the back of the apartment
building before Ralph emerged. He heard Ralph start the truck and
peel out, with a rooster tail of gravel striking the dumpster. He’d
be pissed when he found his reefer gone.
was seventeen, facing down the gun barrel of senior year at Gunderson
High, the third high school he’d attended in as many years. Maybe
this time Kate would like the job. Maybe this time they could settle
down. Donnie whizzed through the corn stalks feeling the swish of
silk and leaf on his cheeks and bare arms, smelling the rich, almost
overpowering scent of ripe corn. It was a flawless hot blue day near
the end of August. Next week he would undergo his annual ordeal,
registering at a new school.
today was his to get high and dream about becoming a millionaire rap
star. Or maybe a country singer. He didn’t really like rap, but it
seemed like a pretty surefire way to fame and fortune. Just spittin’
rhymes, and he’d always been good with words.
maybe he would draw comics.
burst through the far end of the field, where a sagging barbed wire
fence separated the cornfield from Johnson’s Creek, which meandered
east-west through town. Donnie loved the creek. It was peaceful
there, cool in the shade of ancient oak and cottonwood. He sat on a
flat rock by the sandy bank, pulled out the baggie and some Zig-Zag
rolling papers. Someone told him Jesus had smoked pot and if he
doubted it, all he had to do was look at the image on a package of
nothing to roll on, he took off his Grendel T-shirt, stretched it
flat across his knees and rolled on that to produce a fat doobie. He
put his shirt back on and felt his pockets. Oh no. No lighter, no
matches. How could he have been so stupid! He thought of sneaking
back to the apartment, but Kate would be there seething and loaded
for Cape buffalo.
closest source of fire was Nate’s Bait and Tackle, a ramshackle
general store at Bateman’s Landing where County Road HR ended. Nate
was an amiable drunk who’d taken a liking to the young man, and
taught him how to tie a fishing fly. Donnie had last encountered
Nate passed out behind his own counter, TV blaring. It would
have been the perfect opportunity to clean out the cash register and
make off with several bottles of gin. Instead, Donnie had somehow
manhandled Nate into his bed in the back room, closed the store and
sat with him until he came around.
There was a black-and-white photo on Nate’s wall of him and some
Army buddies in Nam. Some of those kids looked as young as Donnie.
was on the other side of the creek through a pasture. Donnie found a
spot where steppingstones allowed him to cross without getting wet.
He gingerly climbed over the barbed wire separating the pasture from
the creek and headed diagonally toward the bait shop. Maybe Nate
would lend him his little aluminum skiff.
looked around. The pasture was empty, but he stepped carefully to
avoid the cow pies. He caught a hint of wood smoke, loving the day.
someone shouted. “Hey, kid!”
froze. Busted? By whom? For what? He turned and saw a man in a ball
cap, overalls and a beard gesturing from fifty yards away at the
man pumped his arm. “Get the hell out of there!”
explosive snort sounded from alder and gorse down by the creek.
black bull pawed the ground, staring at him with the gravity of a
took off. He was quick enough to make the track team and poured every
ounce of energy into the rush, feeling the squish of fresh cow pies
beneath his feet as he pounded for the fence, the bull’s hoofbeats
sending shock waves through the ground. Donnie ran, limbs pumping,
lungs wheezing as the beats got louder.
had no idea how he got over the fence. He had no memory of leaping,
only landing and rolling, twigs digging into his flesh until he came
up against a tree and looked back to where the bull had pulled up and
was now peacefully cropping grass.
he examined himself: ripped jeans, scraped elbows, a little blood. He
swatted his pockets. Still had the baggie and the doobie. Donnie got
to his feet and confronted the now sedate bull.
a real asshole, you know that?”
The bull fixed him with one brown eye and slowly chewed. Donnie turned and made his way through the forest to Nate’s Bait.
Met a novelist
named Ray Harvey. His novel Gap-Toothed Girl, about an Apache
runaway who wants to be a dancer, is excellent. Ray and I are going
to develop a webinar on how to write fiction. We put together a list
of topics such as, what is story? How
to craft a perfect scene. The simple secret to writing unforgettable
content. How to write openings that will grip your readers like a
vise. Oh, we have a million of them.
did some research. There are already five billion Youtube
series on how to write better, but that won’t stop us! No sir!
Every writer is unique, and has stories clawing to get out. I’ve
said it before, and I’ll say it again. Every would-be writer has a
million words of bullshit clogging up his/her/its system, and you
have to get it out before you get to the stood stuff. Kind of like
running the hot water tap until it turns hot. I’m a slow learner,
and have committed more than two million words of bullshit to paper,
which I then committed to a landfill.
ten years I didn’t even try, due to personal problems, that took me
from my home in Wisconsin to Colorado.
have my own system on how to write a novel and it begins with, “What
is your story about?” When someone asks you this, you must be
prepared to answer in an entertaining and informative manner. If you
want to know what to say, go to any used book store and look at the
back of paperbacks, especially those published in the sixties,
seventies, eighties, and nineties. As John D. MacDonald is my spirit
god, I always look at the back of his novels. His Travis McGee series
begins with The
Deep Blue Goodbye:
McGee is a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card
game. He’s also a knight-errant who’s wary of credit cards,
retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He
only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: He’ll
help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep
isn’t particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to
Cathy, a sweet backwoods girl who’s been tortured repeatedly by her
manipulative ex-boyfriend Junior Allen? What Travis isn’t
anticipating is just how many women Junior has torn apart and left in
his wake. Enter Junior’s latest victim, Lois Atkinson. Frail
and broken, Lois can barely get out of bed when Travis finds her, let
alone keep herself alive. But Travis turns into Mother McGee, giving
Lois new life as he looks for the ruthless man who steals women’s
spirits and livelihoods. But he can’t guess how violent his quest
is soon to become. He’ll learn the hard way that there must be
casualties in this game of cat and mouse.
I started in karate at the Ja Shin Do Academy in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1975. Andy Baumann, Joe Demusz, and Jane West were the instructors. I’d always been curious about karate. I had no natural athletic ability. Zero, zilch, zippo. Nada. Every physical contest was a chore to me, from tossing a ball to running. I was as coordinated as a tornado. I could barely lift my leg above my knee in front of me.
I could only get better and so I did, but every stage was a struggle. I had little confidence in my self-defense abilities. After a year training, I was in excellent shape. I can’t believe what we did in that class, in terms of sheer physical effort. For example, “Thousand Kick Night” was a regular feature. There’s no way I could keep up with that regimen today. If anything, Andy has become even more fanatical about rigorous physical training—you can check him out atbaumansextremetraining.com.
In ’77 I moved back to Madison, Wisconsin and began writing for Isthmus, the alternative weekly. I introduced myself to publisher and editor Vince O’Hern, who had been training with Jim Henry at Choi’s Karate on West Washington in the Fess Hotel, which also housed Rod’s Place, Madison’s premier gay club. I got as far as high red when Choi’s closed its doors and Jim left for sunnier climes.
I worked out sporadically with Vince, Bob Dodd, and Al Reichenberger at the University Natatorium. Then I broke my hip. I’d designed and built my own house, and one of my clever innovations was to put a trap door in the floor of the bedroom closet. One opened the door and there was a little ladder going into the basement. One night under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, I stepped into the closet intending to grab a jacket, forgetting that I had left it open to impress my date. I fell through the opening and broke my hip. My date was duly impressed.
My comics were selling and everybody wanted me. I was hot for fifteen minutes, but I didn’t know what I had, or how to keep it. My writing lacked discipline. I would snort coke to write. I tricked myself into thinking this made writing easier, but it didn’t. It just robbed me of judgment.
The hip injury put me on my back for six weeks. When I once again began to walk I realized I was seriously out of shape, so I turned again to martial arts, although I had very little ability and was now hampered by a gimp leg. I have a titanium brace screwed into my right femur, and a metal ball in the hip socket. My calves have always resembled boneless chicken wings. I wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts. My stretching had improved, however. I began training with John Fehling and his kali/escrima boys in the basement of the Vilas Neighborhood Community Center. John is extremely knowledgeable about Filipino martial arts. We trained with sticks and lock-flow. Unfortunately, after a year, John decided Thai boxing was the way to go and he stopped teaching everything but how to hit and kick.
I had married. As my career nosedived, Madeline’s health began to deteriorate. Nasal infections lasted for months. One snowy winter night she had an accident on the Beltline and damaged her neck. She suffered from fibromyalgia, a form of arthritis. One day she said, “I can’t take another winter here. I’ll die.” Okay, I said. We took a massive road trip throughout the southwest, and settled on Fort Collins as the most suitable. My sister Jill and brother-in-law Dennis live here. Dennis and Lee Casuto urged me to spend more time at Karate West.
Things were bad at home. Madeline was in constant pain, which sent her to every pain specialist on the front range. There were other problems. She was fired from her job for failing to show up and lost her health insurance. She suffered from depression. I suffered from depression. Once, back in Madison, I came very close to killing myself. And again, after we moved to Fort Collins, I fell into the Marianas Trench. (William Styron’s Darkness Visible was a hopeful guide map to these dark times.)
Karate was the only regular feature in my life. I looked forward to it every day because when I was on the floor, I was not aware of my home situation. I’ve discussed this with other students and we agree that one of karate’s benefits is that it requires such attention as to preclude dwelling on your troubles. Although I’d been granted a black belt by Joe Demusz, one of my original instructors, the performance gap between me and the standard Karate West black belt was instantly apparent.
I just put my head down and kept coming. While the rest of my world was in free fall, there was karate, noon every day, Monday through Thursday. Then a funny thing happened. I began to improve under the eagle-eyed tutelage of those sadistic bastards Lee Casuto and Brad Suinn. In fact, every higher belt with whom I’ve come in contact has gone out of their way to help me, particularly Mike Martin and Wayne from Budweiser.
One day I went to karate and when I came home Madeline was dead. I tried mouth to mouth. I heard the air rattle through her bronchial tubes but there was no response. I called 911. I was numb. My friend Pete accompanied me to the police station for the interview. Another friend spent the night at my house to keep an eye on me. The next day I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t write. So I went to karate. It helped me deal with overwhelming grief. My psychiatrist urged me to keep going. “Tell the truth, Mike,” he said. “Aren’t you a little bit relieved?”
Gradually, my grief began to subside. It was as if I were coming to the end of a long tunnel. I believe I’m a basically optimistic person, and my natural optimism, so long buried beneath an age of crisis and despair, surfaced.
The Karate West mottoes are keys to successful living. Attitude determines whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. Those who see the glass as half empty are in danger of slipping down the drain. Without something outside themselves to pull them forward they fill their time with the pursuit of pleasure or wallowing in self-pity. They have stopped growing. Why bother? Those who see the glass as half full see possibilities, a reason for living. They have enthusiasm, which is the keystone of a good attitude. Karate is a bridge toward something bigger than the self.
These days I look forward to karate with the enthusiasm I used to reserve for New Comics Day. Achieving second degree seems premature to me. I’ve only been at it thirty years.
Capital City Comics, an outgrowth of Capital City Distribution, was our first publisher. I used to go out to their warehouse on the beltline the nights the comics came in and watch the employees pack the boxes like Santa’s helpers to loud rock and roll. Sometimes the employees took something to help them stay alert through the long night. A ferocious rivalry developed between Capital City and Diamond Distribution to see who could get their comics to markets first. It was louder than a Limp Bizkit concert. There were enough old blues musicians working there to fill a festival. James Eisele. John Davis himself, a mean blues guitarist. Drummer Billy McDuffy, guitarist Tom Flinn, bass player Tom McCarty, and sax player Bob Corbit.
One day I was out there and Milton was showing around a half dozen Chinese businessmen in dark suits, with an interpreter. I asked John what was going on.
“It’s a group of Chinese businessmen and publishers. They wanted to visit Dark Horse, but they accidentally booked tickets to Milwaukee, Wisconsin instead of Milwaukie, Oregon.”