All posts by annbaron

A Post Literate Society by Mike Baron

A POST LITERATE SOCIETY

Remember Borders and B. Dalton’s? They were chain bookstores that are no longer with us. Barnes & Noble struggles to survive, slashing book inventory, turning more and more floor space over to toys, collectibles, DVDs, and games. New DVDs cost anywhere from twenty to fifty dollars. While there are fans who are happy to pay that amount to see a new movie, I’m not one of them. Anyone with internet access can order those films from Amazon, a lot cheaper. Amazon is the elephant in the room, and it’s sucking up all the oxygen. It’s past time for the Justice Department to investigate them for unfair labor practices, but while Amazon must bear the muich of the onus for declining book stores, they are not solely at fault.

A lot of young folks ain’t readin’. Just ain’t readin’. Weren’t raised that way. Video games have taken a huge bite out of the comics market, and anyone who’s conversant with modern video games can see why. They are designed with a great deal more thought and characterization than most comics. They’re the other elephant in the room. It doesn’t help that many comics are unreadable, but so what? Many movies are unwatchable. Gryphon’s, a prominent local comic shop, advertises games and comics. They carry the Big Two, a selection of second tier publishers, and will special order whatever, but many titles don’t make the cut. Gryphon’s can’t afford to pay for inventory that doesn’t move.
Humans gotta innovate. Technology marches on. The internet is a mixed bag. It enables us to reach millions, research anything, send manuscripts without the mail, but it has a coarsening effect on communications, of what we say and how we conduct ourselves. I once posted Lady Gaga had killed it in reference to her singing the national anthem, and within ten posts it was “FUCK YOU!” and “NO! FUCK YOU!”
The there’s “HOW R U?” “ROLF!” “C U BIATCH.”

Words intended as ironic are interpreted as dismissive or offensive. Facebook encourages bold declarations of virtue often accompanied by vulgar language, gratuitous insults, and death wishes.

This collapse of manners is partly due to the collapse of literacy. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury posed a future in which the only printed periodicals consisted of pictures only. We may have reached that point.

Mad Pop Science by Mike Baron

MAD POP SCIENCE

It’s been a long time since I built a model car. It’s taking a long time. In my salad days I was an avid builder and won several trophies. I was in a variety store looking at a plastic ray gun one day and I thought I could turn that into a hot rod. Why? I don’t know. I’ve always loved hot rods and customs. My favorites are the wild customs, the bubble tops, the Beatnik Bandit, Silhouette, and Intruder. Ed Roth, Dean Jeffries, Daryl Starbird. Crazy shit with double engines, mismatched wheels, and elegant, originalbody work.

Fifties and sixties customs that wore too much body putty, like aging actresses with too much makeup, were called lead sleds. If you build a four thousand pound vehicle that only carries two people, you’ve failed. It lacks elegance. A custom should be graceful in form and movement.

I see very few radical customs these days, and they seldom hit the cover of the few remaining model car magazines. The emphasis is on low riders, rat rods, and trucks. Having grown up in the era of the elegant custom, I never cottoned to rat rods, vehicles designed to look as decrepit as possible, rusting,
cancerous suffering from leprosy.

I love power pop. The bands I love the most, like the Beatles, Jellyfish, or XTC, employ what Icall mad pop science. Instead of the hoary but beloved three chord progression, usually one, four, five, as found in much of the Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry, mad pop science uses unexpected chords and harmonies in elegant ways. The music is always surprising, but always makes sense, in the way that the end of a great story should come as both a complete surprise, and perfectly natural.

This is what I seek in music and models.

 

The Corner Pocket by Mike Baron

THE CORNER POCKET

Mike Baron

I was a fat and cowardly child. Growing up in South Dakota, I feared everything from the boys in the locker room to big dogs. I bullied and was bullied. It’s a mystery to me how I managed to hang on to some of my childhood friends, but here we are, fifty years later, tighter than ever.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I moved to Boston to work on weekly “alternative” papers. I ended up in a basement apartment in Brighton, a half block from the Ja Shin Do Academy, a storefront karate school. Every day on my way to the MTA, I passed that school. I would stare through the mist-covered windows at students moving around the hardwood floor, hearing their thumps and kiais. Like most young men, I was fascinated by karate. One day I said fuck it, and went inside to talk to the teacher Andy Bauman. Andy acquired his black belt while stationed in Korea. He could punch through a wall.

I trained at the Ja Shin Do Academy under Andy, Joe Demusz, and Jane West. It was very traditional, very hard. I can’t believe some of the things we did. Thousand kick night was a regular event, as was picking up a teammate in a fireman’s carry and running around the park.

One day a lanky young man came in, went up the makiwara screwed to the wall, and punched it, breaking his hand. He never returned.

When I returned to Madison in ‘77, I resumed training at Choi’s Karate, under Jim Henry. Jim was a charmless thug, but he knew his stuff. I trained with Vince O’Hern, founder and publisher of Isthmus, Madison’s “alternative” weekly, for which I was music editor. Amazingly, Isthmus is still with us, following the collapse of ninety per cent of the alternative weeklies in the country, due mostly to the rise of the internet. I was about to test for black belt when Choi’s went belly-up. Vince and I continued to train together, sometimes at the UW Natatorium or at Lathrop Hall. Lathrop was a beautiful old brick building with a pool in the basement. It’s gone now, like so much of the classic campus, replaced by an ugly building.

I let training slide for years, working out in the basement of my house in Fitchburg. I designed, built the house, and paid it off. It had an in-ground pool. But I made bad choices and ended up losing it and moving to Colorado.

But before then, I found a group of fighters training in the basement of a community center under John Fehling, who’d trained with Danny Inosanto. It was my first exposure to stick fighting. Not that I love stick fighting! Who needs it? It was interesting.

I picked up my first comic in South Dakota, Uncle Scrooge. At UW, some friends turned me onto Steranko and Neal Adams. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I couldn’t believe people could draw like that. I was hooked.

I lived in Boston when the first Master of Kung Fu came out. I bought multiple copies. It was only twenty-five cents. Steve Englehart wrote and Jim Starlin drew it. Doug Moench Gulacy took over. It took Gulacy a few issues to find his stride, but when he did, it was explosive. He took Steranko one step further. But even then, looking at the beautiful drawing of Shan-Chi throwing a flying sidekick. I sensed something wasn’t right. We didn’t see any fighting.

When Hulk waves his fist and five thugs fly off-panel head first, we don’t really see what happened. We get the comic book rush and understand the story. But it’s not like looking at a real fight.

These comics, Master of Kung Fu, Richard Dragon, Iron Fist, purportedly about martial arts, had very little. Only Denny O’Neil, who created Richard Dragon, understood something of the fighting arts. I wanted to show martial arts in a comic like a Jackie Chan film. I wanted to see the techniques unfold so that we understand how Shang-Chi ends up on his back. Comics are no competition to film. Film has many advantages including sound, controlling the pace, and choreographers who understand that the audience wants to see the kung fu. Those magnificent, highly choreographed fights you see in Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, or Ip Man aren’t realistic, in the sense that the brawl in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is. But they are masterful action entertainment and you know you are seeing real kung fu, even if every move is carefully choreographed. Jackie Chan routinely shot scenes hundreds of times to get one perfect take. Comics only need to draw it correctly from panel to panel.

Comics have one big advantage. They can legitimize story material that would be laughed off any sound stage. You will believe a man can fly.

I was working at an insurance agency when one day I got a call from a friend who was an editor at an “alternative” newspaper that erupted due to a union dispute. “There’s some guy down here trying to sell us his drawings,” he said, “and he draws just like you.”

I met Steve Rude on the steps of the Student Union. Until then, I’d been trying to draw. I met the Dude on summer afternoon, he opened his portfolio there on the veranda, and I stopped drawing. Once Capital City picked up Nexus, I proposed a comic about a Druid wizard, cuz that’s what Jeff Butler wanted to draw. Milton Griepp said, “Give us a costumed crime-fighter.”

Why would anyone put on a costume and fight crime? They’d have to be crazy. Thus was Badger born, and the forum in which to showcase martial arts. I urge anyone wishing to understand what I mean to get Badger #9, “Hot August Night,” and look at the fight scene between Badger and Cobra Crisp. Using some photo ref, as well as my childish drawings, Bill Reinhold nailed it. I choreographed every fight scene, usually by drawing it out by hand.

I wrote Kato for Now, first with Brent Anderson, then with Val Mayerik. Val is an accomplished martial artist as well as one of the finest painters of his generation. Go to www.valmayerik.com. We took pains with Bruce Lee to make the fights not just realistic, but in keeping with The Little Dragon’s philosophy.

Q-Ball popped into my head. A stick fighting pool hustler. Some people say, “If he’s Q-Ball, why isn’t he bald?” Wait. Q-Ball is on a journey of discovery. We have big surprises and epic fights.

The friends you meet in martial arts are true friends. Www.karatewestinc.com

Q-Ball, New Comic Book by Mike Baron

Q-Ball

When Bruce Lee burst on the scene, I was ready. I started taking karate and haunting the local newsstand for the next issue of Master of Kung Fu. Paul Gulacy’s art ripped off the top of my head. At long last someone had picked up the gauntlet thrown by Steranko. That was the most amazing art I’d ever seen. But even then, I knew right away the martial arts weren’t right. They were just poses copied from movie stills. I wanted to see the technique as it unfolded. Comics are a visual medium. There’s no reason they can’t do that.

I got my chance with Badger, which appeared in 1983, and reached a peak in Badger #9, “Hot August Night,” with Bill Reinhold’s unbelievable depiction of the fight between Badger and Cobra Crisp.

I worked with Brent Anderson and Val Mayerik on Kato, and Val and I worked on the Bruce Lee comic. An accomplished martial artist, Val’s fight drawings were spot on. Next year you’ll see his latest Badger.

I wanted to do a balls-to-the-wall martial arts comic. I saw Barry McClain’s work and rung him up. Not only is Barry one of the most exciting new artists to break into comics, he’s the hardest working man in the biz. Can’t say for sure, but I think he pencils several pages a day.

Barry was up for it. I liked the name Q-Ball.

Detroit homeboy Curtis Ball joined the Merchant Marine and ended up managing a warehouse in Manila. Curtis wanted only two things out of life: to see the world and study Kali/Escrima. But when a pack of tuxedoed sharks muscle their way into his warehouse, Curtis learns the hard way that it’s not always smart to mind your own business.
The spooks are looking for Donna Wing, a beautiful Chinese blogger, forced to flee due to her exposes of human rights abuse. Now Curtis and Donna are on the run—from the Chinese government, the tongs, and a group of international cutthroats who will stop at nothing to stop them from reaching the United States and spilling their guts.
Sometimes you have to spill some guts to spill your guts.

I go through back issues of Black Belt and Kung Fu looking for photo how-tos, which show six to eight pictures on a page of a technique as it actually happens. In slomo. That’s what we want to do with the comic, break down the techniques so you can study every move and see how it works.

Of course this is a comic, and as Chuck Dixon puts it, comics are opera. So expect big gestures and the occasional anatomical impossibility. Trust us. We know kung fu.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2053015196/q-ball-1-martial-arts-thriller-by-baron-and-mcclai?ref=thanks_share

 

Star Wars VS Star Trek

STAR WARS VS. STAR TREK

Years ago, I adapted Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire for Dark Horse, an easy job due to Tim’s clarity. I parlayed this into a visit to Skywalker Ranch, with my late wife. I’d visited Skywalker once before with Brent Anderson. Skywalker Ranch contains myriad beautiful buildings in a sylvan setting in Marin County. The main building is Victorian, with exquisite workmanship. The underside of the spiral staircase in the library was fitted with polished slats of Brazilian rosewood, so perfect and intricate it resembled a snake’s belly. The cafeteria food beggared most restaurants.

Lucas came out the main door and Brent cautioned us about approaching him.

Years later, I was back to meet with the Skywalker editor in charge of licensing comics, a woman whose name I forget. She bade us enter her office and we chatted.

“I have a theory,” I said. “Star Trek represents the liberal view of space, while Star Wars represents the conservative view.”

That’s as far as I got.

“I’M LIBERAL!” the editor declared. “WE’RE ALL LIBERAL!”

Our visit ended soon after.

I meant nothing sinister. The reason I said that was because Star Trek went out of its way to be inclusive and non-judgmental, while Star Wars featured a hierarchy on both sides. On the Empire’s side, you had the emperor, followed by the darths, followed by military commanders all the way down to the peons. On the rebel side, you had Princess Leia, a royal person, benevolently ruling her loyal subjects.

Two Kingdoms by Mike Baron

TWO KINGDOMS

Animal Kingdom is about a family of high-end robbers ruled by a domineering mother. They go to unbelievable lengths pulling off risky heists to avoid honest labor. Kingdom is about a family of mixed martial artists ruled by a domineering dad. They go to unbelievable lengths to protect one another. Both feature a young man named Jay.

Both are gripping drama. In Animal Kingdom, the mother teaches her son how to shoot. In Kingdom, the son teaches his mother how to shoot. The characters in both seem real and sympathetic, although Kingdom is realer, and has less melodramatic flair. Animal Kingdom incorporates the usual post-Breaking Bad tropes—the criminal underworld and the border, drug kingpins, graphic violence. What makes it unique is Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of Smurf, the ultimate love/hate mother who wields guilt like a scalpel.

Unfortunately, Ms. Barkin takes to Twitter. “Donald Trump has a small penis. That is a fact.”

And she said, “‘C’mon #Isaac! Wash every pro-life, anti-education, anti-woman, xenophobic, gay-bashing, racist SOB right into the ocean! #RNC.

Why does she do this? Doesn’t she understand her program has many conservative fans? Why do celebrities go out of their way to insult half their base? Nevertheless, I will keep watching.

The cast of Kingdom does not spew obnoxious opinions.

Wascally Wabbits by Mike Baron

WASCALLY WABBITS

My front lawn is piebald. When we moved in, front and back lawns were perfect, drenched every other day by the underground watering system, which is de rigeur out here on the high plains. Then came the dogs. They ripped up the underground watering system and chewed all the tubes. So forget the back yard. It looks like the Eastern Front in 1944. Strange patches appeared in the front yard. This spring, I dug them all out and planted fresh seed, watering copiously. Within two weeks, the desert bloomed! But two weeks after that, every patch I planted had reverted to dead grass.

I consulted Doug, who worked for the Dept. of Agriculture and has a green thumb. He pointed to the rabbit turds. “There’s your problem. These rabbits are pissing all over your yard.”

At first I didn’t believe him. But then I noticed every time I went out in the morning, rabbits. Rabbits, rabbits, everywhere. I bought a box of rabbit repellent at Walmart and spread it around the lawn. The rabbits laughed!

I went online and looked up natural rabbit repellent: garlic powder and ground cayenne pepper. I spread it liberally over the lawn as if it were a steak. The rabbits laughed! I screamed at them. The rabbits laughed like I was Sam Kinison! I will get them. Fall is almost here. I will cook up such a concoction of anti-rabbit stew they will take a wide detour around my lawn! I will order coyote urine off the internet! I will dig a foxhole and pop up with my BB gun! This I swear.

Be vewy, vewy quiet.

Best Dam Store by Mike Baron

BEST DAM STORE

On Friday Kim and I rode down the Front Range to Lyons, up 36 to Estes Park, and down Big Thompson Canyon back to town. The back road to Lyons goes by reservoirs, farms, ranches, and a half dozen upscale gated communities with names like Whispering Pines and Red Rocks Redoubt, by several estates over ten thousand square feet. Kim, who weighs 145 lbs., rides a Valkyrie. I ride a Shadow 750. The ride from Lyons to Estes Park was chock-a-block with bikers and families in enormous motor homes towing Jeeps. The higher we rode, the cooler we got. I was glad I’d brought a sweatshirt.

Estes Park was jammed. Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, it features dozens of galleries, beaneries, haberdasheries and knick-knack stores. Antelope and buffalo jerky are big sellers. We rolled down the Big Thompson, which had only reopened this year following a devastating flood in 2015. Houses and parks were wiped out. They’re planning to shift the whole road ten feet higher onto enormous concrete stanchions, an ambitious program that will take years. The canyon winds through several mountain communities, rustic cabins hard-by the road except for the lucky few that found flat places on the far side of the river. You can’t raft the Big Thompson, it’s too rough and there are several dams.

Suddenly my engine stopped. I pulled to the side of the road, fiddled with the ignition, and it started again. Then it stopped for good in the worst possible place, in the narrows, with barely enough room for a two-lane highway, river on one side and a sheer thousand foot cliff on the other. I pulled over as far as I dared, just short of falling off into the scree at the base of the cliff, got on Kim’s bike, and we rode a quarter mile to the Dam Store, “The Best Dam Store By A Dam Site.” I had passed it dozens of times but never before entered.

Kim dropped me off. He had classes to teach. The store people loaned me their phone (there is no cell service in the canyon) and I called Aces Motorcycles, which is just up the street from me. Mark the Mechanic told me he’d phone Scott’s Towing right away. The phone calls were going fast and furious. The Dam Store was irked. So I said, “Give me a trash bag, I’ll clean up the parking lot.”

I picked up every cigarette butt, discarded fast food wrapper and plastic cup. That lot hadn’t been cleaned in years. Now the Dam Store loves me.

Routine by Mike Baron

ROUTINE

People seldom ask, “What is your routine like?” I rise at five-thirty every morning because the dogs want their breakfast. This week we have a house guest, Hatchet from Alaska, who weighs 110 lbs. I feed the dogs being careful to separate June Bug from Mack, as they have already had three death struggles, and had they not been separated, would have fought to the death. This is entirely Mack’s doing. She is jealous and territorial, and has not greeted June Bug warmly.

I log on, check my emails, go to Facebook and joust with friends or foes. A half hour after feeding, the dogs, led by Bob, agitate to go to the dog park. They know their rights! Bob is very vocal. We go to the park where I release the dogs, sans leashes, as they stampeded directly to the gate and wait to be let it. We go in. I hobnob with my friends, a social worker, a retired cop, a health care administrator, a computer programmer.

I rally the dogs by calling, “All right, fellas! Let’s go!” They rush from the dog park to the car where I give them each a treat. Back at the house, I address the day’s projects. I am always working on a novel, either the actual writing, or outlining. The outline has to be entertaining and informative. The goal of the outline is to elicit, “Wow! I’ve got to read this story!” It is not just a personal blueprint.

I touch base with collaborators around the world. For the past eleven years, I have left the house around eleven to go to karate. It is now difficult for me, and I can barely move after a typical session. So perhaps it’s time for me to move on from this activity. I can’t decide. I’m just about the oldest dude there, but they’re my friends and have expressed dismay that I would consider quitting. Kim is sixty and still going strong. On the other hand, that’s his job. Writing is mine.

As I work on a massive horror story, a sequel to Banshees, the next Josh Pratt story is in the back of my mind. I’m thinking of titles and writing down notes. In the evening, I write in a legal pad while TV drones on in the background. If I hear an interesting name, I write it down. I know it’s real. Like Ashkan Stoon, Urdo Corso, or Haha Yaya. A name by itself can inspire a story. I get many of my best names from Judge Judy.

I watch Better Call Saul, Animal Kingdom, Ultimate Fighter, and I’m Dying Up Here.

I have stopped watching The Americans, American Gods, and Pillars of the Earth. Yesterday I watched Baby Driver, the first time I’d been in a theater in ten months. I recommend it! It’s a stylish caper film with a heart.

I keep a pad and pen by my bed, and often write things down before I go asleep.

ComicFest

COMICFEST

Last week was ComicFest at the Denver Tech Center. Comic Fest is a pimple on the ass of StarFest, celebrating its fortieth anniversary. StarFest is science fiction, and incorporates HorrorFest. “This year we are pleased to welcome David Guintoli (Detective Nick Burkhardt of “Grimm”), Bitsie Tulloch (Juliette and Eve of “Grimm”), Christian Kane (Jake Stone of “The Librarians”), Walter Koenig (Star Trek’s original “CHEKOV”), Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine’s “ODO”), Hale Appleman (The Magicians “Eliot Waugh”), Mike Quinn (Star Wars “Nien Numb”), Jodelle Ferland (Dark Matter “Five”) along with many other Actors, Directors, Producers, Artists, Authors and you!” I am not familiar with The Librarians, Nien Numb, Dark Matter Five, but I have heard of Grimm. Many years ago, I had lunch with Mr. Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and James Doohan.

While Starfest luxuriates in the expansive environs of the Marriott, ComicFest huddles in the smaller exhibition hall at the Hilton Garden Suites across the street. Rio Herrera, its tireless promoter, is perhaps the biggest comic enthusiast in Colorado, a man of probity and wit. I was seated next to old friend Pat Broderick, who has done a cover for Badger. Nate Hamel and I are working on a new project based on his shark drawings.

I huddled with Barry McClain, my partner on Q-Ball. I have always wanted to do a straight martial-arts thriller, a serious, credible story. Even as a neophyte, I knew that Paul Gulacy’s Master of Kung Fu, which galvanized the industry and won my undying allegiance, did not depict martial arts accurately. Comics are a visual medium, and kung fu makes for exciting story-telling. But the audience knows the difference between a pretty pose and real technique presented in a dynamic manner.

There are very few good kung fu comics. Way of the Rat, by Dixon and Johnson, is one of them.

Hence Q-Ball, with inker Barbara Kaalberg and colorist Charlie Hogg.

My publisher and world-famous science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson held court behind the usual impressive Wordfire Press fort. His Dan Shamble, Zombie Detective novels personify droll.

We joked and juked and now I’m back.