Saturday, November 21, 2015

woman in a restaurant

Appeared in THE CHIRON REVIEW (q.d.e.p.) waaaay back in 1998.

woman in a restaurant

today, alone, making
loud pronouncements:
"He is the One.
He is Love."

& everyone in the place
pretending not to hear
& the manager finally asks her to leave.

this scares me.
not because she is crazy,
but because I relate to her.

I believe  things
& think people should know.
it could be me
sitting at that table:
"the Tao that can be spoken of
is not the eternal Tao.
Accept being unimportant.
Give up learning and
put an end to yr troubles."

& people would look away uncomfortably
& the manager would ask me to leave.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

María José—short fiction

"María José" appeared in SOL LITERARY JOURNAL back in 2011, and was chosen for their 'Best of' anthology in 2012. You can buy the anthology here. Note: The SOL website no longer exists.

"María José" is also part of my novel MASKED MAN, the first 20 pages of which you can read here

Who am I? You’re just now asking me? Ok, I’ll tell you my story, though you won’t understand me. I’m from Guadalajara, I was born there. My father worked in a panadería, a bread store, and mother worked in a tortillería, where tortillas are made. The real kind that smell good and you can eat them warm and fresh right from the over. My parents had three children. Me, my little sister Marta, and my little brother Arturo. Bueno, when I was twelve, my father left. He was sleeping with another woman and my mother found out. She didn’t tell him to leave, just got angry and called him stupid and a hijo puta, because he was, and then he left with the other girl. She was closer to my age than my mother’s, which is strange. They went to Mexico DF and we never heard from him again. In Mexico, a man doesn’t have to take care of the wife if he leaves. Yes, there are laws but they don’t matter.
You want to know how I learned to shoot a gun? We stayed with my Tío Octavio and his family a lot. The brother of my father. My mother had to take another job. His house was out in the country and he used to be a mili, a soldado, and he had guns. He taught all of us to fire guns, even us girls, because he said one day the people would rise and take back the country from los ricos. And also he said that mexican girls should know how to defend themselves. From who? From mexican men. And he was right.
As soon as I was old enough I quit school and started working at the tortillería, but even then there wasn’t enough lana, enough dinero. Tío Octavio paid for our house. Then his wife, Tía Linda, found out he was sleeping with my mother. Ay ay ay, she even came to the tortillería to scratch out my mother’s eyes!
After that, Tío Octavio never talked to us again and never gave us any more money and my mother had to sell the house. We had no family there, her parents had died before. She had a friend in Puerto Vallarta who could get her a job working at a hotel, she couldn’t take all of us. Or bueno, sí, she could have, but she had another plan. We have family in Phoenix. She wanted to send my sister and me, and later my brother when he got older, to Phoenix, where we could make a lot more money.
The problem was that we didn’t have enough money to get my sister and me to America. We could barely get to Santa Teresa by bus. There are men, even in Guadalajara, who will take people to America, but the majority of them are narcos, los narcotraficantes, the ones who sell drugs, and my mother didn’t want nothing to do with them.
But my mom’s plan was for us to go to Santa Teresa and work at one of the maquiladoras and make enough money to pay a coyote to get us across the border. My mother knew someone who worked here, and called her, one time only, and told her that we were coming. Then she put us on the bus. I just turned sixteen.
When we arrived in Santa Teresa, my mother’s friend wasn’t there. We called the phone number but the person we talked to said she didn’t live there no more and she didn’t know where she went.
In Santa Teresa, there are men who wait at the bus station, looking for girls to work in the maquiladoras. I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t even have a place to stay! A man said he could get us work, but that there was what he called a hiring fee, which was just a bribe. I told him we didn’t have no money and he said, That’s ok, we’ll take it out of your check. So I said yes. What was I supposed to do? And the man took us to an apartment building filled with other girls working at the maquiladoras and found us a room to stay and said he would take the rent out of our check too. I said ok because I’m stupid. But I was only sixteen and had to take care of my sister, you know? We didn’t have almost no money. The guy, he had us sign papers, and told us where to go to work. Then he asked me if we needed money for food. I thought he would just take that out of our checks too, but no, He said he’s give me some if I sucked him! He said it right in front of my sister! Hijo de puta! Of course I said no. He just shrugged like it was no big deal and left and I sat and cried, and my sister cried and there we were, we didn’t know anybody, crying and holding each other.
Our room was the size of closet and we shared a bathroom down the hall. But it was ours, and we started work the next day.
The other girls were nice. They were from all over Mexico. All of us doing the same thing, except some wanted to go to America and some just came because they thought they could make enough right there. I thought so too, until saw our first checks! Thieves! Ladrones! All of them!
What did we do? We sowed shirts. This shirt I’m wearing? My maquiladora probably made it!
Here’s what they do. They give you a job on first shift, during the day. The maquiladoras are filled with girls. Some guys, but mostly girls. The men are the supervisors, of course. Los jefes. But then there are the jefes of the jefes, the men who come in suits, they walk around, look at everything. They go in the office, they come out of the office. They drive around in their fancy trucks, theirs SUVs, watching, looking. When they see a girl they like, they take her. They ask her jefe, Who’s that? What’s her name? Then they wait outside for the girl, and tell her to get in. This happens a lot. And the girls get in. Why? Because the men have money. The men tell them they’ll take them out, to restaurantes and clubs. To dance and drink. Except, sometimes the girls don’t come back. I didn’t learn this until later.
Mostly it’s just guys. Regular guys. Meaning mexican guys, so cuidado anyways, but yes, girls go out and nothing happens. They drink. They dance. They fuck. The girls come back crying. Or not. They come back smiling. Or not. They get pregnant and have abortions. Or not.
The jefes of the jefes, they want a girl, here’s what they do. They tell the little jefes to change a girl’s schedule. Suddenly she’s not working the day shift any more. Now she’s working the night shift. Now the buses aren’t running. Now there’s not people in the streets. Now she has to maybe walk home in the dark. Now she’s a little scared. Then there’s a rich guy in a fancy SUV asking if she needs a ride. He and his friends will give her a ride. And why doesn’t she ask one of her friends if she wants to come along too. That’s another way. They get one girl, who will invite other girls. Not her friends. One time I had a girl that I didn’t know ask me if I wanted to go out dancing that night. She wasn’t even smiling. She looked scared and desperate and had a bruise on the side of her face. When I said no, she looked like she was going to cry.
So I start to learn what’s going on. Our friends, the other girls, start to talk, tell each other what we heard. Help each other survive. Tell each other about when a girl is found out in the desert, dead. Killed. And more than killed. Tortured. Raped. And then one of the girls was someone I knew. Tatiana. She lived in our building. One day she never came home. Nobody knew what happened to her. We thought she just left. Some people do that, just leave and go home. But then two weeks later we knew what happened to her. Two boys found her out in the desert. It was on the news, but you know what? No police ever came to our buildings to talk to us. No police ever came to our maquiladora. They didn’t ask us anything. Only because her family came to Santa Teresa and asked did they know anything.
And then my sister got moved to night shift. I told her no, don’t do it, but she said it was ok, she would always go with friends, and that it would be better for us to work different shifts so that we weren’t crowding each other in the room all the time. And I said ok, está bien, because you know? That sounded good. I was tired of living in the building and tired of being with my sister all the time. I was egoísta and said, está bien. And then after a week, just one week, she didn’t come home. I knew, but I had to ask anyways. I found some of the girls she was friends with, the ones she said she would always come home with. And you know what they told me? That she got in the car with a man. She said it was ok, she knew him. And then she never came home.
And so...And so I had to be the one to call my mother and tell her. I had to be the one to listen to my mother cry over the phone. I had to be the one to listen to my mother ask why I didn’t take care of her. I had to be the one to listen to my mother get angry with me, yell at me, for letting my sister get killed. It was my fault.
I never went back to the maquiladora. I just never went back inside. But yes, I did go back once, to look for the car. I waited outside for two days looking for a car that fit the description of what my sister’s friends described. And then it appeared. It was parked out front, down the street from the entrance, where they could watch all the girls leaving. There were two men inside. I walked to it and pounded on the window. The driver, he rolled down his window and I started yelling, Where’s my sister! Where’s my sister!
And the man asked me, Who’s your sister, and I said her name and without even thinking about it he said, I don’t know her. Then the hijo puta asked me if I wanted to get in the car so we could go look for her. And they laughed. So I kept yelling, calling them names, insulting them.
Then the driver, he pulled out a pistol and pointed it right at my face and called me a puta and told me to shut up. The other guy kept laughing and I hated them both. The driver said that my sister was a puta and that she got what she deserved and that I was a puta and that I would get what I deserved. Then he told me he would come find me some night and show me where my sister was. And he asked me if anyone would care if he shot me right there in the street.
What could I do? I was so angry, but I backed away. I thought if I turned around he would shoot me in the back, so I backed away, down the sidewalk, and when they stopped looking at me I turned around and started walking.
So what does a girl do to earn enough money to pay a coyote if she doesn’t work at a maquiladora? What does she do when there are thousands of other girls the same age who are coming to Santa Teresa to do the same thing? Well, I’ll tell you. She can’t work at a restaurant and even make enough to survive. Or a supermercado. So, she can become a puta, just like that man said. They call us putas and then make it so that’s all we can do if we don’t want to die. So I become a dancer, because being a dancer is the least bad way of being a puta.
It’s not so bad. You get used to it. You separate yourself from it. You separate yourself from your body. You act they way you know you’ll get the most money. And men don’t care. They don’t care if you are pretending. I don’t know if that’s because they’re stupid or because that’s they way they really want girls to act. Which is stupid also. So either way men are stupid. Or that’s how it is in Mexico.
In America men must not be like that. Both of you are caballeros. That’s a joke. You are caballeros, but you are also crazy. That’s ok, está bien. I’m crazy too.
So why did that pendejo hate me so much? Well, because when I left the maquiladora, I just left. I didn’t go back to my apartment. There wasn’t anything there anyway, just clothes. I left. Vanished. Everyone probably thought I was another dead girl they’d never see again. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that place or those people.
But there was another reason. Before I started saving my money to pay a coyote, I started saving my money to buy a gun. And dancing at El Torre gave me plenty of chances to buy one. I never did some things, like drogas, neither sell them or do them, or prostitue myself like most girls do. Never. But I did buy a gun. I made sure it was from a guy who wasn’t a regular.
And then I went back to the maquiladora and waited for that car. Three days waiting. Then it was there. I walked by it to see who was inside, and it was the same two men. I would never forget them. They didn’t even recognize me the first time I went by. They just whistled and asked me if I needed a ride. I walked past them. I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I would do it. Then I heard one of them laugh and call me a puta. That did it. I walked down the street and back, and when I got to the car I walked up, raised the gun and shot the driver twice. Then before the other guy could get out his gun I shot him twice. Then I kept shooting until the gun was empty and I left.
It was easy to disappear. People saw me do it, but I just walked away and no one said anything. I walked a couple blocks, took a bus into the city and got off after a couple blocks and took another bus. No one knew where I was, or where I lived. Just another girl. Just another puta. But I was a ghost, come back from the dead for vengeance.
So now you know why I want to go to America. Not because of my mother, not because it’s what she wants, but for me. To leave. To leave Mexico forever and never come back and all the mexican men can go to hell and die.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


First 20 pages of my most recent as-yet-unpublished novel. 78, 932 words, 362 pages.

ComiCon is a dream, a nightmare, a chaos, a masquerade and its own reality. ComiCon is a sub-culture, a culture, a world, a nostalgia, a childhood dream where women walk around in tight bodysuits, and where men show the type of hero, superhero, they would really be if they could just stop eating so many Doritos. There are parties every night at ComiCons, and a ComiCon itself is one big party.
I hate parties.
I should stay in my hotel room and write. Work on a script due soon. But I’ve been invited to one of the semi-private parties tonight. There’s one every night of the Emerald City ComiCon actually, and the comics biz is very much about networking. A comic book is a team effort, and you need to know people to have a team. I am the Grinch of ComiCons, and am constantly amazed that people there welcome me with their costumed arms.
Emerald City ComiCon officially unofficially begins tonight, Thursday, with the first party, for those locals in the know, and those of us creators (writers and artists) and editors and publishing folks who have come in early, which is most of us. One of the big publishers (not the big big ones, the Big Two, but the big medium ones) takes on hosting chores at a local watering hole each night.
Weather today in Seattle is surprisingly nice, with actual sun when my train arrived in the station early afternoon. After I check into my hotel room, I go for a quick run down on the along the piers, dodging traffic and tourists and other runners, the Olympic peninsula and mountains visible across the bay—most other times I’ve been here they’re in the clouds. And how ComiCon-esque to be able to see Mount Olympus rising to the west. You’d almost expect to see gods or superheroes (our gods) flying around.
After a glorious hot shower, I even have some hours in the afternoon to walk around downtown and be somewhat normal. Though of course, nerd that I am, my main destination is Elliot Bay Bookstore, an uphill climb right past the Convention Center, where I poke around looking at books without pictures, though sneak of look in the graphic novels section. They have one of my books, my Aquaman compendium. It’s not that big of a section, so that fact that something of mine is featured is something. There are bigger comics stores in town, which I may or may not get around to visiting this weekend. As a reward to the bookstore for carrying me, and to be subversive and potentially thrown out, I take out a sharpie and secretly autograph it: Dear Elliot Bay: Aquaman was right!!! —Mark Singer
But mostly I look at books without pictures. People, fans I mean, comic book readers, might be surprised at how many ‘regular’ books I read. It’s what I tell aspiring writers at comicon panels: read everything, read read read. Some guys (and gals) that I know, do a lot more reading of graphic novels than I do, and have encyclopedic memory of all comics everywhere, seemingly. My dark secret: I actually think most comics, comics books, graphic novels, aren’t that good. Or, not as good as they could be, or should be. Even some of my friends’ work. Even my own. I’d much rather read any given short story by Chekhov than any given comic book, especially the superhero kind, but including others. That said, there are comic book writers that can kick my ass. Some so good they make me think about giving up and moving into something lame, like writing screenplays. I’m friends with a couple. Or, acquaintances. I sometimes wonder if they feel the same way about me that I feel about others. Probably. But, they’ll be here this weekend, maybe even at the party tonight. There won’t be much time to talk, to really talk. Never is at these comicons. So much going on, schmoozing and planning and gossip, when I’d rather be having a quiet coffee in one of Seattle's numerous cafes.
I pick up some books on zen buddhism, both for research and my own interest. I’ve had more than one character into buddhism, including one of my own characters, Robin Midori, though now I’m writing for a martial arts superhero named Iron Fist. And, perhaps looking for something for myself, some calmness and/or meaning to the madness of life, and the madness of my own madness.
Back downhill, enjoying Seattle having actual people out walking around. People who walk exist in Portland too, where I now live, but growing up in Michigan, that wasn’t always the case. Even Chicago, where I went to college, that was only true half the year, when the weather wasn’t freezing-ass cold and snowy. Much more reasonable here in the Northwet. Many folks just getting out of work, waiting for busses to take them to the suburbs, where they can afford to live. People in suits, people in rags. Young white kids in dreadlocks carrying backpacks. Homeless guys sitting in an alcove, watching everyone. Up to a city park, a small grassy area with a view of the bay, where more homeless people congregate, and where I’m asked twice if I want to buy weed, though it’s soon to be legal here.
And women. Seattle women are awesome. I say that about every city I visit, and it’s always true. I love the variety, but business suits, to jeans and t-shirts, some for business, some for play. Some, apparently, for both. Young, older, in-between. Everyone out enjoying the rare sunny day. I don’t live that far away, Portland, but everything, everyone, is grimier down there. I don’t know how seattleites do it, since they get more rain up here than we do, but it’s the city itself: Portland just seems to have mold and moss growing everywhere. Seattle shines. Maybe Microsoft elves come out and night and polish everything every night, or maybe the steep streets insure that all the moss is washed out to the sea, but everything is clean. Now. Tomorrow if it rains I may think of otherwise, and I like Portland anyways. I like the grime. I’m grimy. I always have been, so when I moved there I felt at home. And Seattle can feel sterile. Like, when you go into Starbucks? And it has that absolute cleanness? That you appreciate when you’re driving and want a nice clean private bathroom? And the coffee is fucking good but the food is all dry and tasteless and the music is good but you suspect that huge studies have been conducted to figure out just what kind of music you exactly like? That’s Seattle. Portland is more like, fuck you, keep driving. Drink a Pabst Blue Ribbon and get the fuck outta here.
I contemplate going to the Seattle Art museum. What’s interesting is few of the masses amassing this weekend for the comicon will even think to pay a visit. Nor will those who do go to the museum consider heading up the road to the comicon. Two art worlds within blocks of each other and either snubbing their noses at, or just ignorant of, each other. High verus Low, who will win? Well, the Comicon is sold out: thousands and thousands of people are paying fairly big money to get into the comicon, many so they can then spend more money buying comics (that is, art) inside. Pop culture wins. Low culture wins.
Time to catch the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains down on the pier. Salt air. Ships horns. Down south, to my left, huge War of the Worlds insect cranes loading train cars onto ships. A few sailboats out on the water, and smaller fishing boats. A yacht. A ferry leaves, heading north. Maybe I could do that this weekend, just to be able to stand out front, or at least on a rail, and freeze my ass off in the wind, looking for orcas.
I spoil it all by taking some pics with my phone and posting to Twitter: “sunset in seattle muthafuckas!” I hate myself and kinda hate my 441 followers too. But this is business. The whole weekend is business. My whole life is business. And schmoozing. And networking.
My phone vibrates. My sort-of-former editor, Diane, texting to verify our dinner. I text her back and head back to my hotel room for another quick shower and change of clothes. I’m exhausted already. That’s what I get for walkabouting all over Seattle. But, this may be my last time to get outside and enjoy fresh air for a long period of time. The ComiCon looms, and the schmoozing will begin.
Diane Schwarz is/was my editor at Dark Horse. I should say the legendary Diane Schwarz. If I’m proud of my story American Winter, and love the artwork by Paolo Pinto, Diane is who made it all come together and kept the process going behind the scenes, so Paolo and I could do our creative thing. She’s nearing retirement, which I don’t quite believe. That is, her life is comics, has been for decades. She was the first women to become involved at the editing level for comics with the Big Two, and at one point she was editor-in-chief for Dark Horse. She’s incapable of doing ‘fuck all’ after she leaves, as she claims, Someone will come along, some smaller company, offer her full creative control, and she’ll take it. Though I hope she works a little less. I’ve told her more than once not to work on anything, including most especially one of my projects, on a saturday night, which I can tell she does from her email dates.
We meet at a fairly chi-chi place up Second Ave a bit. She is, as usual, and as am I, dressed all in black: Usually a t-shirt but she’s dressed up with a silky blouse thingy for tonight. Petite and skinny, with long black hair she’s always just parted down the middle, and her leather biker boots (how does she find them in her size?) and black jeans. I’ve never seen her wear a dress, not even when she accepted an Eisner award. The only real color to her is her rose-colored John Lennon glasses.
We do the French bise when she comes in. I already have her favorite wine ordered and we ching-ching to American Winter, starting in immediately on business. She makes me swear on my life that I’ll come up with a new story idea for the series. But I'm not serious. She knows that. Or, almost does. I see that gleam in her eye that's hoping I'm serious. Am I serious? But no, I'm not serious.
The bigger news is of course the television adaptation of American Winter, for the SyFy network, which, against all seeming odds, is becoming a huge hit. Which is in turn sending more readers to the original comics. Which is good new for both of us. Though Diane just gets a straight salary, while I, as in independent contractor, get royalties (so, ch-ching!) it’s a definite feather in her cap, proving once again that she’s the queen of comics. She hasn’t exactly been happy at DH lately, sick of what she calls the “boy’s club” and their obsession with superheroes and science fiction, and that they fail again and again to hire women for the editorial teams.
Diane plays these comicons right, generally avoiding the madness of the main floor and meeting everybody individually throughout the days. And she does know everybody. She was into the comics scene back when I was just reading them as a kid, stuff she edited in fact, and stuff written by one or two of her former husbands. Little did I know but she was already helping shape how I thought about comics. She is, perhaps correctly, somewhat annoyed about the state of comicons now. “When I started out, they were just about comics. You went and looked at comics, talked to comics people, bought and sold and traded comics. Maybe Stan Lee would show up and do autographs, that’s about it. Now it’s all about these kids who come in wearing costumes and they don’t even read comics from what I can tell, but they expect everyone to treat them like rock stars.”
She is of course referring to cosplayers, and cosplay. Costume + play = cosplay. I’m sure I’ll see plenty of them tomorrow, maybe even some at the party tonight. For the most part I don’t mind them, and in some ways find the whole phenomenon fascinating in an anthropological way. I’m old enough to remember the old days too, or my old days, back when comics were comics and the costumed folks were over at the science fiction conventions. Now they’ve all merged. One could argue, and it’s been done, that superheroes, the biggest part of comics so far still, is a form of science fiction. But comics have become more about franchises. Or, it still can be, but the Big Two, and others like Dark Horse are making more and more money from converting their comics lines over into movies and/or (like in my case) tv shows. And/or video games. Grant Morrison, maybe the biggest writer around now, became millionaire when his Batman story about Arkham Asylum became a bestselling game.
The idea for American Winter, the kernel I started with, was after 9/11, which, to some younger people now isn’t even a big deal I guess, though it set many things in motion that affect America and the world still, now, which I kinda hope I don’t start ranting about and getting into. But. The one thing post-9/11 was how, immediately, muslims were for targeted for hate crimes around the country, and there was a general feeling of dis-ease (like a disease) with muslims in general by the more conservative (and even supposed liberals sometimes) parts of America. And that made me go hmmm, thinking about my own childhood interest in the Holocaust, when I devoured books about just what had been happening to Jews before America even entered WWII, and the camps.
That plus the little-acknowledged fact that America rounded up people of Japanese descent living in the States and put them in internment camps. And I thought, What if? What if, in an alternative near future, or alternative now, the American government rounded up muslims and put them in camps? What would happen? How would it happen? And for those who weren’t adults around post 9/11, this kind of wasn’t that much of a stretch, with the invasions of Afghanistan and then, inevitably, Iraq in full swing. Or, not for me, when the American government was adopting new departments like Homeland Security, sounding like something right out of Nazi Germany.
My initial thoughts, and the initial proposals I sent out to prospective companies, (including Diane at DH) centered around white characters still. I wrote half a script about the US army coming into my hometown of Ann Arbor and declaring martial law, and how some students would protest, initially, in the Diag, then try to escape when the Army used violence. That script stuttered to a stop for while. Then I had the idea of a guy, white, being asked by a muslim family friend to smuggle two muslim children out of Michigan across the border to Canada. The idea being that the country was already on lockdown, but the border up in Northern Michigan is a lot more open. And I liked the idea that somewhere in there that the man would be helped by the Michigan Militia, conservatives waging a guerrilla war with the feds (like the real-life Michigan Militia dreams of doing) but only as long as they don’t find out the two children, a boy and a girl disguised as a boy, are muslims. Because everybody hates muslims at that point. Fans of the tv show will recognize that storyline, vaguely. That was my contribution to the script sessions, when it became obvious from on high that the show had to have some heroic white people in it. That guy became Douglas the Smuggler. But in comics form the story didn’t get far. I kept having doubts. Like, if it’s about muslims, ostensibly, then the main characters should be muslims. Except, I knew nothing about Islam, except for what I remembered from a college class at MSU years ago. Which, turns out, was way more than more Americans knew, including the talking heads on tv.
So I guess I just doubted myself. As usual. And as always. It’s what creative people are best at. But you just slog through. Not all of my characters had been white males. Robin Midori and John Dogo from CABRONA. And, I’d written female characters, like Red Sonja. Writing about religion, and other cultures, is hard. But hard is good, I’ve found. Hard means risky. But I doubted too whether a comic book company would touch a story about muslims being rounded up in internment camps at that time. Faux patriotism was high in America at the time of Bush II’s reign. Dissent meant you weren’t with them, and as Bush II famously said, “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” Which, you know, was ridiculous except that at least half of America believed it.
And that’s where Diane came in. She loved the initial proposal, and didn’t blink when I changed it a bit. It helped that I had Paolo Pinto on board as the artist, the man who can do no wrong. I suspect she may have made her own proposal to the upper ups at DH less on the story than on the creative team, but that’s fine. She never told me. They accepted. And then I had a deadline.
So, while continuing research (involving both stuff on Islam, but also on the Holocaust and the Japanese internment camps) I had the idea for American Winter, based on a true story I’d read about of a Jewish man who was taken from his home in Poland before things were really going down. He and some others were taken out to some woods outside his city, at night, forced dig a large trench, then were lined up along it and shot. This guy somehow missed being shot, and was buried under and among the other men’s bodies. After the Germans left for the night, he managed to extricate himself and escape into the woods, eventually making his way back to the city. Where, he found, no one believed his story. People just would not believe what had happened. That story stuck with me, so I just went, hm, what if? What if it was a muslim guy? And so, I made him an employee at the university, and added in another memory, about how people had been rounded up in Chile during the coup and kept in the city soccer stadium until they were disappeared. So I had him and other muslim men (at that point) rounded up and put in the Big House, the stadium for the U of M football team. Which, was almost blasphemous to Wolverines, and I did get some flack for it when the story came out, but the blasphemous part was fun and scary. Risky. Also, familiar, working with at least the area I was familiar with, grew up with. And the woods were the Michigan DNR woods I’d explored in my youth where, I found out later to my surprise, there actually was an internment camp for Germans during World War II! I grew up there and never knew until someone at a panel discussion brought it up.
I knew though, that American Winter had to be not just one story and one character but multiple characters. I knew too that I wanted each issue, or most issues, to be self-contained. I’d learned that from my Aquaman days, that readers, if they feel they’re coming into a storyline mid-way, will feel lost and opt out. That had happened to me as a reader too. Plus, I envisioned a world. I knew I wanted to start with Ann Arbor, but I knew at some point exploring what had happened in this alternative world in other parts of America would be interesting. Or, if not all of America, then Michigan and/or the midwest, where war-patriotism was at its highest.
The model I used was the great SCALPED series, by Jason Aaron, which did just that, placing most of the stories in a certain western Indian reservation, and sometimes following a few main characters, but sometimes not, and sometimes going to other reservations. Aaron’s vision isn’t an alternative America, although you could argue life on the reservations is an alternative America anyways, but it fit, and many of the issues were stand-alone, though all build towards a bigger picture of life on reservations in general.
It worked. It worked beyond my, and Paolo’s, and Diane’s, expectations. Mostly because of the controversy is caused. I was accused of being anti-American, and a traitor on the one hand, but also surprisingly of being anti-muslim, and/or portraying muslims as only victims and exploiting them (the term ‘Islamploitation’ was used, without irony, which I thought was actually pretty funny). And/or knowing nothing about Islam. Which, that last was the one that got to me the most. But the rest? Loved it. Didn’t love the media circus interviews that DH arranged, but it sold copies. The more outrage, the more money we made.
But yeah, living in fear each month of someone coming out with some legitimate complaint about how I was portraying muslims. And, they came. Or, what is legitimate? To complain about whether a certain muslim character would still wear a headscarf seemed silly, since if I learned anything from the experience, there are many kinds of muslims and many kinds of interpretations and a multitude of different styles and looks. Plus, though the visual part was a lot on Paolo, since he actually drew (and sometimes inked) the characters. But, he doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t really speak English that well, hiding out in Rio. I was the one that took the brunt of the criticism.
But there was good stuff, and that’s what made me happy. I got many emails and radio talk show phone calls, and tweets thanking me for bringing the whole issue out in the open. And I even got suggestions from actual muslims, telling me their real-life stories from other countries, and or their own speculations about what might happen, and why, and I realized that this world I’d created needed more stories. More stories than I could come up with. At first I still clung to my ego and envisioned me keeping the main story, but having separate mini-runs based in the same world, running parallel to mine, and taking place in other parts of the country. And that part did happen. But I also, after a while, decided to just step back and give the main title to others to experiment with. Plus, three and a half years was enough. We got through the end of the Bush years, fought the good fight, and once the tv deal went through, money was not a problem (at least for a while!) for either of us. So, on to other projects. I talked to Paolo about it, and although he really loved the series, he too liked the idea of handing over the reins to an actual muslim artist, the first of whom turned out to be Fareed Biljon, right out of Detroit, who is fucking great.
The one (horrible) irony was seeing the Obama administration become the biggest deporter of ‘illegal’ immigrants than all previous administrations combined, to the point where, gulp, it was rounding up these so-called illegals and putting them in for-profit prisons without trials while they supposedly waited for deportation. I got a twinge of guilt about that. Like, shit, did I give them that idea?
Diane still edits American Winter. She was shocked and appalled when I bowed out, still kinda is, though I explained why. I’m proud of the storylines I came up with, and the characters, some of whom still make appearances, but I knew that no matter how many muslims I checked with ahead of time that I was bound to make a mistake or misunderstand. And, it just seemed to right thing to do. It was a risk. The upper-ups at DH didn’t like it, and didn’t like me walking away, but they’re also on the other hand been great about creators keeping the rights to work, and supporting that. And, they did score the tv show deal, so they couldn’t complain too much.
The irony, of course, is when Hollywood got the rights to do the tv show, they brought in a stable of white writers. I know because I was there, and sat in on some of the beginning sessions, read some of the scripts. And, irony upon irony, the scripts were pretty good. They started with some of the storyline from my runs, but quickly developed other ideas and stories, based both on budget and, I guess, on what the producers wanted. I feared the worst, everybody at Dark Horse did too, as did my twitter followers, but in this case it worked: For its genre, the show is getting a good chunk o’ audience and a second season has been given the thumbs up. Ch-ching!

Diane and I chat for an hour, then more Dark Horse creators filter in. People I’ve met but haven’t worked with, like the artist Sam Froud, and people’s who’s work I know, like Anna Aramyan who’s made a name for herself through coloring—adding in the colors of drawn and inked pages. I’ve wanted her to work on a project of mine for years, but it’s never worked out. This is the power of Diane: she knows everyone, and brings them together, sometimes not even on purpose. We just all happen to be here for the ComiCon, and this too is the power of ComiCons: the behind-the-scenes networking that happens. That’s how I made my break into comics, at a then-rare ComiCon in Chicago in my mid-twenties. Waiting in line to get into a panel featuring Frank Miller (one of my heroes) this guy behind me was sketching, so I asked, kind of stupidly now that I look back, if he was an artist. Of course he was, and we talked about comics we both liked, like Miller’s run on Daredevil, but also the underground stuff, like Robert Crumb. This was Jared King, and eventually he asked me, “Are you a writer?”
I was, though hadn’t thought of myself as a comic book writer. I had a BA in English from Columbia, and had written stories and poems and even a play or two, all of them not so good, which I knew even at the time, though I’d had a sense that I’d gotten better, somehow. Write that much and you’ll automatically get better. But much of that had been in response to assignments for school. What did I want to write on my own? Or worse: was I ever going to write on my own? But never had I attempted a comic book script. I wouldn’t have known what to do, since that wasn’t an acceptable form of writing in college classrooms. But, I said yes, I was a writer, just not mentioning what kind I thought I was. Because it was kind of at that moment when I became a comic book writer, by Jared asking. Something clicked. Comics were, after all, what I’d grown up reading, before I’d gone on to ‘real’ books. That click might have gone on un-acted upon, or not, I don’t know, except for Jared. We sat together during the Miller panel and right before it started, Jared offhandedly said, “We should a comic together.”
I nodded and smiled and said yes and that may have been all that happened (people say stuff like that to each other every day) but I sat there thinking, listening to Miller, who is both an artist and a writer, and something he said then, or maybe it was the person interviewing him (the details are lost to the haze of time and my lost memories) about how lucky he was to be both, and part of what Miller said was that he started writing because originally as an artist he had a hard time finding good stories by other people. I saw Jared nod to that. And I thought, hm. What if?
Jared and I talked some more and I asked him what kind of story he might like. We went back to Crumb. Jared really liked that grainy squiggly kind of artwork, and he really like the subject matter, which at the time neither of us could articulate, really, but what I know now was writing about, documenting, the lower class. That clicked with me in that I liked the writer Charles Bukowski, who did the same thing, with humor, like Crumb. I told Jared about Bukowski, and later loaned him the Notes of a Dirty Old Man story collection, which he loved (and which he never returned!). But even before then we’d agreed to do something like that.
So I went back and read my Crumb comics, and my Bukowski, and at the same time I’d been reading a used copy of DT Suzuki’s Essays on Zen Buddhism, which I’d delved into via Jack Kerouac and his novel The Dharma Bums, and this, I think is how creative shit happens: a melding of things in one’s life. I thought, what if? What if I could talk about some of the zen weirdo-ness with the koans, but like in a grungy Bukowski bar. So I wrote “Armadillos.”
Now, the idea of a story that takes place in a bar is kind of cliché, and may have been even then, since Bukowski kind of almost defined it. But I just like the idea of a couple barflies, and a hot female bartender (my weakness throughout life) hanging out and this old japanese dude walking in and fucking with them with his zen koans.
Jared loved it, and to my relief had no problems with how I formatted the script (which I stole from my playwriting class at Columbia) since he had no idea either (and in fact there is no one standard way to do comic scripts, which freaks beginners out, but which I love—I’ve seen other guys’ scripts and they’re way different from mine)(also, as a side note, later with Microsoft Word became a thing, I had one artist who would change the right margins of the scripts I sent, jamming them in so he had space on the right hand side of the page to do small sketches as he read along).
Jared at the time was actually not what you’d think a disciple of Robert Crumb and the whole Zap Comics scene might look like. He had a blonde crewcut and wore solid color plaid shirts and corduroy pants. At least at first. Once he got famous (as much as anybody in the comics industry is famous—Kelly Sue DeConnick once told Brian Michael Bendis that he was ‘comic book famous’ which was, and is, true, though he could walk around downtown Portland and nobody would recognize him, nor recognize the ‘famous’ titles he’s written). But Jared for some reason never lost the crewcut, even when hanging out and smoking big ole spliffs with a bunch of longhairs like me. (I’ve since cut my hair to an inch all around off the scalp).
Almost by accident, I kept “Armadillos” short. That is, the story ended a ten pages. But that was perfect, and in fact a lot of the underground comics were like that, though I didn’t consciously realize it even as I was re-reading them. Duh. But, later Diane would tell me that that was her criteria for writers and creative teams: can they tell a story in ten pages? Versus the industry standard (which has varied) of twenty to twenty-two? And, you know, ten pages is still a lot. Took Jared three weeks to actually draw and ink and word balloon it all. Which meanwhile I was like, come on come on, and worried that he might not actually do it and that I’d written the story for nothing, which is something I go through still, in every goddamn comic I write and with every goddamn artist I work with, even the good ones. Especially the good ones.
But he did it. I got lucky. There are so many flaky artists at the beginning stages, guys, and gals now, who think they want to be comic book artists, but who realize once they have to work with panels, and visually tell a story along with what the script says, they’ll just go off and draw cheesy CD covers for their friends’ bands instead. Or, not draw anything. So yeah, I was goddamn lucky.
Once we had those ten pages of artwork and a script, neither of us knew what to do with them. I wrote query letters to our favorite editors at the Big Two, along with copies of the scripts, and since we weren’t writing about superheroes, at Jared’s suggestion, also to underground comics. Which, you know, at this point was a level of professionalism that would be unheard of from most creators, because there was no, and still isn’t, one way to get in the biz, where a lot of it is, still, who you know, and (less so now with the internet) where you live. What I mean is, I actually wrote a script, Jared actually drew it, I actually queried. At any point either one of us could have just gone down the pot rabbit hole and done nothing.
The Big Two weren’t interested, though one editor, Mike Barcock from DC, who happened to be in charge of the Aquaman series, did write me back a short note saying it wasn’t his thing, or rather DC’s thing, but that it was good. This would be key later on, and a lesson in never knowing what small butterfly-wing effort might have an effect later on.
But, Prana Comics took the story. The editor Mark Gonzalez (‘Gonzo’) loved it and featured it in an issue a few months later, for which Jared and I got paid something like $200. Might have been more, might have been less. I should have kept the check stub. That brought up issues Jared and I had never even conceived of, like how to split the money. Later, working for the bigger companies, that generally gets worked out separately ahead of time by the editor. But at that level, at that time, things were more up in the air, especially at the underground comics. But, so, after Gonzo sent me the letter saying we were getting paid, Jared and I sat down with some beers and figured it out. Jared actually thought we should split the money 50/50, but there was no way. Writing the script took me no more than a week, including ‘research’ (re-reading Crumb comics) whereas he’d spent three weeks drawing and inking every day. So I proposed me with 25% and him 75%, which is somewhat standard nowadays, from what I can tell, though it depends on writers and artists at higher levels.
Point is, the issue of Prana Comics came out, and suddenly I was a professional comic book writer. And then nada. No interwebs back then, no kind of way to tell if anybody was even noticing stuff, though I remember going into my favorite head shop at the time, Crazy Bob’s, and seeing that rack of underground comics et voilà, there was my story inside, with three issues there for people to buy. I went back every day to see if someone had bought one of them. On the fifth day there were only two issues! Someone had! Two days later the other two were gone. I asked Bob if who bought them all.
“Nobody. If nobody buys them, we tear off the covers and send them back.”
Thus my first lesson in remainders. But! Someone had bought that one issue! Someone somewhere had read something I’d written! Had paid money to do so!
Gonzo asked if we had anything else. I didn’t know what to do. Jared said, “Well, that zen buddhism stuff was funny. Maybe you could do something else like that.”
We also both agreed we should put pot smoking in there too, as a political statement, and just for shits and giggles. (We were of course high when we thought of it). Plus there had to be a woman with large breasts (an idea that would of course be true when I went on to work on superhero stuff). The result though, ended up being something a little more serious than I thought, and it wasn’t even zen-ish, necessarily. I’d just stumbled across the Dragon Girl, a character the The Lotus Sutra, who’s youngish but wise in Buddhism and who lectures people much older than her. I kind of liked that idea, but it being just after the Reagan 80s, and the first Bush’s presidency, I was perhaps cynical about Americans, still am, and so I couldn’t help but think, what if? What if the Dragon Girl appeared in America, how would she be taken? Seriously? Or as a joke?
I didn’t want to do another bar scene story. For some reason I had the idea of a trucker, some big chunky guy who finds her on the side of the road hitchhiking in the desert. So he picks her up, and then I just had her say randomish zen quotes. Like he tries to talk to her and she’s says, “Form is emptiness, Emptiness, form.” And then I just felt like, where do you go with that? And that I didn’t like this guy. So, I had him take her out in the desert and basically rapes her. That is, she never says no, even as he’s telling her what he’s going to do. She just keeps with the zen quotes, even when he leaves her standing naked in the desert at night. Yeah, dark stuff, but it seemed the natural American redneck response to eastern philosophy: fuck the bitch.
Jared was perhaps less enthusiastic. Or, I don’t know. I gave it to him, then didn’t hear from him for a couple days. But he drew it. But I think he wanted something more nutty. And there wasn’t any pot smoking. The result, when I finally saw it, was, well, disappointing. I think, since the story was more serious, that I expected the artwork, the characters to be a little more gritty and realistic, but they were drawn as even more as caricatures than in “Armadillos.” Which maybe sort of worked with the trucker—he was gnome-like, and had a beard, which I hadn’t pictured—but the Dragon Girl, who I’d pictured as actually skinny and beautiful and exotic was instead a Crumb-ish plump woman with enormous tits. Thus, my first lesson in compromise. And also my first lesson in being very fucking specific in script descriptions. Later actually some artists would go out of their way to send me sketches of the characters for our stories, sometimes going back and forth, sincerely wanting feedback when usually I just go with whatever they want, which seems to disappoint them almost, so now I know enough to mention some little things I don’t actually care about, like, Yeah, maybe her boots should be knee-high?
There is a certain letting-go a comic book writer needs to perform once the story is written. Nothing is ever going to be like you picture it in your head, and that might be a good thing, since comic book artists can be amazing and come up with stuff way beyond my word-centered imaginings. And too, sometimes artists have told me that my scripts influence the way characters look, beyond just a physical description of them, that for example dialogue helps shape how a person looks. Which is interesting to think about in real life. Like, does how we talk, or talk with others, end up affecting how we look?
But, we sent it off to Gonzo, and he took it. And we got paid again. And I gotta say—this has happened again and again—that no matter how uncomfortable or annoyed I ever feel about the artwork of a project I’ve worked on, when the paycheck arrives, I feel much better.
That was the end of Jared and I’s creative work together, for a couple of reasons. One, he’d gotten the confidence to write and draw his own stories, with all the big tits and joints he could cram into any one panel. Two, I got a phone call, back when phone calls were a big deal, from Mike Barcock, the editor from DC, a little after that second story came out. He congratulated me on the two stories, and said he’d enjoyed them, and would I be interested in writing something for DC?
My bowels about exploded at that point. DC! Fucking DC! The company whose comics I’d grown up on! The company that published fucking Batman! The company who published Wonder Woman, whose image had imprinted itself in my mind such that every women after that was compared to her.
I said, “Um, yeah.”
“Who—which character?”
“How about Aquaman?”
Aquaman? Aquaman?! The joke of the Justice League? The clean-cut Leave It to Beaver-ish half-man, half-Atlantean guy who could talk with fish and dressed in an orange shirt and green pants with green booties?
But, it was fucking DC Comics. I said, “Yeah, sure.”
“Great. Can you get me a script, twenty pages, self-contained, by next Friday?”
That was in a week. Including mail time. “Um, yeah. Sure.”