Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Advancing Towards the Sunset

Much has been said about a cultural shift—the moment where culture froze and then melted. Most agree that the year was 1997 (I notion I wholeheartedly agree with) though some also argue 2006 or a similar time frame. But regardless of where one falls on this point, there is little argument that pop culture is the worst it has ever been.

Reboots and remakes rule the day, every movie follows the similar beats with the same tired character archetypes, and general malaise and a murky grey feel permeates every frame and line of dialogue. But it isn't just film. This same post-modern gunk has dripped over into other mediums as well.

But it didn’t happen all at once. The tipping cow of pop culture has been shoved many times before now. This is merely the first time it hasn’t gotten back up. Inept and hateful individuals have been working at dismantling good things for decades now. You can see their results by looking around and wondering why nothing is as good as it once was. It isn't just in your head.

For my example, let me use the woefully neglected video game franchise Double Dragon.

The original arcade game was released in 1987 to near universal acclaim. It practically invented the side scrolling beat em up on its own. The industry tried its hardest to flush away its achievements in the mid-90s, but we'll get to that. Double Dragon was a staple in every arcade, and it was huge on home consoles in the next few years-- especially the NES port. It became a fixture in the gaming world as one of the big new franchises. Within one year Double Dragon was huge.

And its secret is obvious to all.

It's pulp.

You see, Double Dragon is one of the most inventive, yet straightforward, video game series out there. You play as the Lee brothers, Billy and Jimmy, who have to rescue Billy’s kidnapped girlfriend from the Black Warriors led by gun-totting Willy. You traverse four levels through streets, forest, mountain, and base, to beat the bad guy and rescue the girl.

There are two buttons: punch and kick. These two buttons can be pushed in different combinations in tandem with the joystick (or d-pad) to jump, head-butt, spin kick, rear attack with an elbow, or grab enemies for extra punishment.

Its brief length and rock solid controls make it an addictive game to play even today. Even if it does have a few issues with slowdown in some places.

Double Dragon’s appeal is its simplicity. It's a straightforward story of two tough guys righting a wrong and getting the girl. There is nothing to it but that obvious idea. And that's all players wanted. It's easy to see why it connected in the era of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Predator.

In fact, the idea was so straightforward and simple that it changed its setting in the sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and no one complained or really noticed. The developers essentially duplicated the trick pulled with the transition between Mad Max and The Road Warrior by changing the aesthetic while not destroying what came before. Double Dragon was now post-apocalyptic in setting, with a darker setting and music, and more outlandish trappings and encounters. And it fit in perfectly with the feel from the original.

The sequel wasn't received that well at first. The arcade version was disappointing, being just a re-skin of the original with new moves, but it was the NES version which added stages, crazy level gimmicks, a more interesting art style, and even more classic music. This version really pushed the series over the top. There is a reason Nintendo put this game on their NES Classic console (for all five of you who were able to buy it) despite game journalists attempting their usual revisionist tactics to say its outdated crap--DDII is still rock solid today.

The move set expanded. Knee strikes, uppercuts, hurricane kicks, more weapons, and platforming made the game even better than the original. The NES version of Double Dragon II: The Revenge was the best kind of sequel.

And it was surprisingly superversive. The main influence of Double Dragon is Fist of the North Star. There's no argument over that. But Fist of the North Star is a tragic tale with Kenshiro, the walking incarnation of karma, dispensing justice over the wicked and unable to reclaim his lost love. Double Dragon is about two brothers stepping into a sticky situation and putting things back together again. They don't start any trouble, but they always finish it, and the endings to the games are surprisingly uplifting affairs, especially for that era of Japanese entertainment.

The first game ends simply enough with Billy and Jimmy rescuing Marian and stopping the big boss of the gang. Its a nice romantic ending for our hero and the town becomes a safer place. The heroes win, and the villains lose.

The Revenge is where it gets interesting. In the sequel, Marian is straight up murdered by the Shadow Warriors as revenge for what the brothers did in the first game. The title is in reference to the bigger threat that sets off the game. By the end, nothing is as it seems as the Black Warriors from the first game were only the small part of a bigger organization. The real deal are called the Shadow Warriors. These groups were actually led by a mysterious demon warrior who uses the shadows themselves to do his bidding and spread his influence.

And this ties in to who the Lee brothers are.

There is a legend that two warriors using Sōsetsuken (the martial art the Lee Bros. use) are the ones who will put a stop to this evil forever. At the end of the game, they beat the big bad and fulfill the legend which allows a miracle to descend from the sky for all their efforts. Marian is brought back to life in replacement for the evil life that was extinguished. Billy and Marian come together and the game ends.

The developers got a lot out of a simple situation. DDII was so successful it even became a million seller not long after its release.

It was off the back of the first two games that Double Dragon grew popular. It was one of those medium defining franchises with Mega Man, Contra, Mario, and Castlevania, that was always brought up and beloved. It was the premiere fighting franchise until Street Fighter II and Final Fight kicked down the doors years later, but it still retained an appeal and style all its own.

So how did it get adapted when it finally got a TV show and movie?

This is where the troubles start. This is what the 1990s did to a 1980s franchise:



Well, the TV show speaks to itself. They took a series about two tough guys fighting evil demonic gangs with nothing but their wits, legendary teachings, and skills, and gave them Power Ranger powers all while making their impressive and imposing roster of villains neutered idiots. It was a standard cartoon for the era. Early '90s action cartoons were not much to talk about. It was an awful show best forgotten.

The show wasn't the problem: it was the movie. It was the movie that proved to be the death of the franchise.

Now, it wasn't solely due to the film. Technos had badly mismanaged Double Dragon by 1994 so badly that the third arcade game was farmed out to a Z-tier developer and the licensing rights were given to parties that never should have had it in the first place. Everything that happened was a symptom of this.

However, it is the movie that perfectly encapsulates everything that went wrong with the franchise and the era it was made in.

To see this failure firsthand, here is what the director said about the movie in question:

"Our characters are like normal kids - three kids on an adventure, so we didn't want to make something that kids would almost be too afraid to see. ... I'd like to make it in a funnier, light-hearted vein."

Does this sound like anything written above? Keep in mind the original games were made for action adventure gamers who were already kids at the time. They're the ones who made it popular. So why do they need to be pandered to when they had no problem with the atmosphere of the original games?

But the 1990s were filled with this sort of mentality. Talk down to the kids and make sure they aren't scared or run the risk of engaging in something they might enjoy on a higher non-safe level. Now you might understand why so little entertainment from that decade holds up.

Keep in mind that Double Dragon isn't Hellraiser. This is a series about two guys who go on a quest to rescue a girl from an evil gang. It doesn't get more base pulp than that.

Double Dragon is the easiest video game to adapt into a movie. Two men train in martial arts in their town, a gang comes and harasses them because these two have been trouble to certain important parties. When they aren't looking, Billy's girlfriend is kidnapped, and the two brothers go on an adventure to rescue her. That's all you need.

At the very, very least this movie could have been a C-tier Cannon Film: a competent action movie with no budget but a lot of heart. It wouldn't have taken much. After all, Double Dragon is a very '80s concept at heart.

But the movie was made in the '90s.

What ended up being made was a film that not only disrespected Double Dragon the franchise, but the entire 1980s influences it wore on its sleeve. Every '90s cliche invaded the movie in an attempt to rip out its pulp roots.

The main characters? Inept. The main villain? Not intimidating at all. Billy's girlfriend? Completely changed into a '90s tough girl cliche. The bad guys? They turned Abobo from an 8 foot tall body builder into a fat mutant idiot spouting bad jokes. The brothers are taught and raised by some woman who looks about six years older than they are for some reason instead of them already being masters with a mysterious past. The mysticism integral to the background is relegated to a cheesy MacGuffin that, once again, looks as if it was ripped straight from Power Rangers and his little relation to the main characters. Once again: this is 1990s entertainment at its core.

But that's not all. The film is covered in bad jokes because no one, least of all the script writer, respects Double Dragon at its core. What should have been a simple action adventure film became a glorified toy commercial for a franchise that could have been replaced with anything else. They ruined a franchise that wasn't even a decade old because they couldn't let it be what it was made to be.

Much is said about the terrible Super Mario Bros. movie, but this one is far worse. That movie didn't harm the franchise--this one helped kill Double Dragon's credibility and took the cool edge, mysticism, and surprisingly touching moments out of it. It became what the '90s are known for: a cynical ploy to sell stupid things to stupid kids without anything to impart on them except to buy more stupid stuff. At least the '80s toy shows had writers who tried to impart something on the viewer. The '90s could not do Double Dragon justice for the same reason it couldn't do action movies after Demolition Man right anymore. The '90s had a hard time with heroism because it completely forgot what it was.

So, yes, 1997 is when rock bottom hit. But it was not out of the blue. While the 1980s were a reaction the rampant nihilism of the '70s (itself a logical endpoint of the hedonistic '60s), the 1990s were sabotaged and co-opted by cynical types who warped and stretched '80s archetypes like silly putty until they were so ridiculous we had to abandon them and "get serious" again. This is why the '00s are so utterly embarrassing to look back on. It all started with the '90s.

Look at The Matrix. It's a good movie, yes, but where is the passion? Where is the fun? It's a completely hollow and stiff film that has no real continuity with the action movies that came before. And that's what all action movies have been since, if they're not "ironic" and "self-aware" about it, that is.

That was two decades ago. Entertainment has not gotten any better.

And it will get even worse.

If this looks like a downer of a post that's because it is. For a long time I wondered why so much had changed so needlessly. It wasn't that I was growing up and didn't understand the younger generation or whatever dodge with shill-types that is popular this week. It was because what I liked was deliberately dismantled and destroyed.

That's what happened to Double Dragon. The game press didn't help with their campaign against beat em ups in the late '90s by declaring them shallow trash not worth the money. This is the same group that rallied behind God of War, by the way. Don't expect them to stand by you when the industry loses its way even further than it already has.

But because they've destroyed constantly for decades, these people have forgotten how to create. And all that's left is to remake the old properties with the same modern cliches that have killed every other modern product out there. Over and over again.

This is why I write. This is why I read other newer authors trying to reclaim what was lost. This is why I read the old authors. Heck, this is why I do Cannon Cruisers. This is all I can do to connect with what was lost in a world that is perfectly satisfied in destroying everything from the past while building nothing new. And it's not going to get any better.

Sunset is here. Prepare for the night.

Enough with revisionism and undeserved ego. It's time to start fighting back. Sooner or later there will be nothing left for them to destroy. Then the rebuilding begins.

It will be a long time to sunrise, but it sure will be something when it finally dawns.

I'm also embarking on own journey to create enjoyable entertainment. You can see it yourself below!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From Dark Depths to Astounding Frontiers

It's been a while since I reviewed the premiere issue of Astounding Frontiers. My assessment was that if you are looking for a magazine of fun Silver Age era Science Fiction then you will be right at home. If you are looking for either Golden Age pulp or modern fiction, however, you would be out of luck.

That said, it's been some time since that first issue. Let's take a look and see how much later issues have improved from the initial release.

Heck, the covers alone have improved tenfold since the first one.

I will be looking through Issues 2, 3, 4, and 5, in this review in order to properly judge more of the multi-part series. I will, however, still be skipping the full on larger serializations. I simply do not have the interest in them as of now, as stated in the previous review, but if that is to your taste then you should have full confidence in the authors involved that they will cater to your taste just as well as the shorter pieces do.

Please apologize this sloppy review. It was difficult to compile properly. Astounding Frontiers is difficult to review.

Three of the four stories in issue 2 are continued in issue 3 (and one in issue 4), so there's much carryover. Every issue bleeds into the next which makes it hard to recommend a specific issue in general. As an aside, I have skipped Julie Frost's story for this post as it is not completed as of issue 5 and I did not want to jump into issue 6 and have more cliffhangers to work around.

Confused? Yes, so was I. This is one of my main complaints with Astounding Frontiers. It is hard to jump into or keep track of with so many stories starting and ending in different issues.

But let us get into it and begin with issue #2.

Up first is Dead Man Walking by Scot Washam, a zombie survival horror tale about a lone protagonist gathering supplies. It's a fine starter to issue 2, but it's not one of my favorites. That said, it's fun and action packed. It also benefits in being the quickest and most exciting read in issue 2.

The Long Freeze (Parts 1 and 2) by Karl Gallagher ran in issue 2 and 3. A young man named Luke awakens from a cryogenic freeze where he learns that the world is a much different place than the one he left. With a fellow traveler named Marv he finds giant Siamese cats and a village of chicken men in Part 1. In Part 2 the pair rescue two beautiful women from the village. They then reach a village of . . . "men" for lack of a better term. Weird is a great descriptor for this one. This was a great read from start to finish, but the ending petered out. A new character is introduced and the story just stops. This could have used a third part to wrap it up.

Then up next we have The Robber Council (Parts 1, 2 and 3) by Brian Niemeier which carries over three issues. I always struggle to explain his stories because they are always so very thick. This is a story of a prisoner named Merentus being given a second chance by the Philosopher King. In the first part there is a debate regarding letting Merentus leave his dark prison to escape into the light. I don't want to say more than that because I might mention something that will ruin the mystique of this piece. In the second part he is bought as a slave by a woman who uses him as an escort on a perilous journey which is the focus of the last part. Of the three parts, I must admit I liked the first part the best for having such a strong conflict in such a small amount of space.

The Last Lesson (Parts 1 and 2) by Russel May follows.a time traveler attempting to improve his life at the expense of his partner, the world, and time itself. The first part deals with him telling his tale from a prison cell as he attempts to figure out his way back through. The second part deals with the repercussions of his selfishness. I have said I don't care for time travel stories and this story exemplifies why--in a good way. It's confusing in how the rules work and yet the plot progression is easily understandable and straightforward. This made the story enjoyable on a level I wasn't expecting. What it does is solidify my feelings that time travel as a story concept is too troublesome to encumber yourself with. That said, Mr. May made it work for him and the result is an enjoyable tale.

Issue #2 also contains two vintage pieces which are The Stolen Mind by M.L. Stayley and Into Space by Sterner St. Paul. The former is about a man by the mighty name of Owen Quest who applies for a job at a research facility and ends up going through a trippy spiritualist journey. The second is a tale about contact with extraterrestrials and a missing scientist which ends in a very odd predicament for a certain character. These put a good frame on the type of stories that the magazine is hoping to capture.

If I have one complaint it is that there was only one standalone single part story in these issues. If you are trying to get new readers to jump aboard it is difficult when they only see a bunch of serials in mid-progress and two short stories, one on its second part and another on its third. It's not approachable for new readers. A few shorter one part tales would have been nice to break up the longer works.

I understand it's a way to keep readers coming back, but it keeps some at arm's length from picking up a new issue when they are not certain they can get a full experience, or get dropped in the middle of a bunch of stories that they do not know the full length of. It's not newcomer friendly.

Thankfully, Issue #5 is filled with standalone stories which makes it far easier to talk about. As said before I will be skipping Julie Frost's story only because it is not finished as of my review and wouldn't make sense to review it here.

The first tale in this issue is Spacebook by Arlan Andrews Sr. is a short comedic piece about all knowledge of the universe being known. It's a solid piece that does have a funny ending but leaves you wondering if everything really ever can be known. I quite liked it. This was a breath of fresh air.

Redcoats Versus Monsters by Patrick S. Baker follows and is, like the title implies, an alternate history tale. Coming off of Spacebook made this a bit more humorous than intended, but that's no bad thing. This tale contains action, reanimated corpses, honorable soldiers, mysterious snake men, horror, and fantastic sights. This is the best story of the whole lot, the most pulp, and by far worth the price for issue #5 alone. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this one.

Last there is For Science! by Ben Zwycky. This is a poem and is another break from what Astounding Frontiers has offered so far. It is weird, creepy, and out there, with just enough to make it truly fit in with a pulp magazine. This adds much to the magazine's tone.

There's also an article by Jeffro Johnson on Planet Stories that, once again, makes me wish I had a copy of the very magazine he is talking about. The pulps really were something else, and it is good to see so many modern publications attempt to reclaim what was deliberately abandoned. Much like Astounding Frontiers is attempting itself.

As it is, this is the best issue to jump on board with outside of the first one. The original stories as a whole are stronger than those contained in the initial issue, however, and there is much more variety. This is by far my favorite of the 5 issues I have read.

And that is all I have read through.

My main problem with these issues was in length of the tales themselves. Short stories are meant to be brief, sharp, and to the point. They are meant to lift the reader out of their normalcy and doldrums far quicker than a novel does by offering a complete story with as little economy of word space as possible. Few of these stories achieve this due to spreading over multiple issues and some issues not even containing any complete tales at all in their individual pages. It dulls a lot of the satisfaction.

Of course, I am not complaining serializations exist at all, only that a selling point for a magazine should also be that it contains complete content in its pages to contrast with longer pieces. This is something Cirsova offers in every issue. Even if they began running serializations, I can still trust them to have standalone short stories that I can consume in addition to their new approach.

Now this might only be a personal issue, but I didn't see any reason to avoid bringing it up. I am the one reviewing this, after all.

Another problem is that it still has a bit of genre segregation. These are not the fault of the tales themselves, but in the magazine's approach. There were no Fantasy tales included in any of these issues nor any Horror beyond Mr. Washam's in issue 2. All that is except for Mr. Baker's excellent tale in issue 5 which has no fear of genre limitations. Contrasting this with the Cirsova issues I recently reviewed and I cannot help but be disappointed on that aspect. Part of the fun of pulp reads is not knowing what any given story will contain within its pages. It is a feeling of opening a mystery box unsure of what will spring from it and always getting surprised.

All that said, the content itself is worth your time. These stories are well chosen and enjoyable, all for a very affordable price. If you are looking for a good magazine for Science Fiction stories then this is a fantastic buy. You are in for a lot of fun.

You can find all the issues of Astounding Frontiers here.

I'm also creating stories of my own. If you enjoy pulp you are sure to dig this. You can read my new novel today!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hidden Gem: Psyren

Shonen manga was not in a Golden Age ten years ago. Manga in general wasn't so great. This is a controversial statement, but it really was in a bad place.

The Big 3 of One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach, were at their height, and every other manga in Shonen Jump was following suit copying them. You had a gang of "colorful" protagonists, you had a ridiculously strong antagonist, you had the characters train to beat said antagonist, then the arc ended. Rinse and repeat until 30 volumes are achieved and the story ends. Then the next shonen comes along to take its place. There was not much of anything for a fan that had been around during the real manga and anime Golden Age of the '80s and '90s to click with or sink their teeth into.

It's a bit hard to believe now with series like My Hero Academia, Promised Neverland, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Dr. Stone, and World Trigger, offering a more rounded cast and involved story for all readers, but there were few series like this a decade ago. Manga writers were more keen to use flashy designs and art to hide the boring story and cookie cutter characters and ride the coattails of the Big 3's popularity in an era before the internet and market really blew up around the medium and many competitors arrived. For those weaned on classic manga, there wasn't much.

Loud and wild art was king, "good guys" were seen as weak and passe, and empty formula and characterization was key to not standing out from the crowd while melding into it. Series of flash and no substance like Hitman Reborn! and Soul Eater were considered top of the line despite having nothing much going on in them.

But this is what sold at the time. Had a series like My Hero Academia, or even Promised Neverland, had come out then, they would not have lasted. There was no room for classic storytelling at the time. Shonen was in a bad place though it has thankfully recovered since.

During this era of bland action and ankle deep characterization was one particular series that did manage to slip out of the pack to provide an exciting and adventure packed series that stood tall above the crowd. At least it did for a time, but I will get to that.

This series was called Psyren, an action/sci-fi/fantasy/horror/adventure tale with more going on than you would think at first. It ran for 145 chapters over 16 volumes from 2007-2010, right in the thick of a terrible time for manga and anime. As you can imagine, it had a rough run.

Psyren is a hard series to describe without getting into spoilers, but I will try my best to avoid them. Go read the first chapter for free on Viz's site to get most of the early twists and turns out of the way. You can find it here. After that, come back and continue this post. I really don't want to spoil the fun for you.

Back? Good. Let's continue.

Ageha Yoshina is a punk who does odd jobs for money. On his way home one day a payphone rings, but only his voice plays back to him. Eerie enough, but that's not where it ends. There he finds a card that says "Psyren" written on it. He goes to his Occult Club to find out the origin of this name and learns of an urban myth concerning people disappearing. This in the midst of public apathy being at an all-time high. But that's not all. One of his classmates is in trouble and might be involved in this shady business. Not to mention, all sorts of lowlifes are looking into it as whoever finds out the origin of "Psyren" could get a reward of half a billion yen.

This all happens in the first chapter. Whereas most first chapters these days (and at the time) are predictable and overly formulaic to a fault, Psyren lays mystery after mystery and ends with you stunned and wanting to read more just to know what was going on. In an age of bland shonen with stock comedy and bloodless action, this was truly an anomaly at the time. It turned out to be quite the wild ride, but the first chapter lays it all down.

In just the first chapter, Ageha deals with a missing girl, a strange phone call quiz in the middle of the night, being pursued by Yakuza, and gets himself transported to some crazy place where everything is a crater. The writer, Toshiaki Iwashiro, gives the reader a lot of questions, and parses out the answers while laying on more questions. It makes the series a bit of an addicting read.

All this made Psyren one of the best Shonen Jump series at the time of its run.

Unfortunately, it was also a bit ahead of its time as far as the zeitgeist goes.

I can't say anymore than that without spoiling all the exciting twists and turns of the series. If you are a fan of horror, 80s action, and themes of fate and destiny, then you will get a lot out of this. Psyren has everything the classics of the genre has. Characters grow, change, die, and every action and decision can alter the fate of the world itself, and does. Everything ties together and works to such a satisfying degree.

The action sequences in this series are clearly inspired from an older sort of shonen manga that was not around at the time. They are intense, weird, and highly engaging on a plot level. Whereas everything then was very bishonen, clean, and without much pathos, Psyren strove to bring the old adventure pulp spirit back to the genre.

And it succeeded. 

From a personal standpoint, I do consider this one of the best series Shonen Jump has run, and easily the most overlooked. It should have gotten an anime and much more support from Shueisha than it ultimately did. But, unfortunately, it just came out at the wrong time. Would Psyren had come out ten years earlier or later it would have been big. But as of now it's simply a cult hit.

It also narrowly missed the new wave of shonen happening now. It ended in 2010 two years short of World Trigger's start and the beginning of the change towards more pulp and classic manga inspired series. It was a victim of the uninspired era it belonged to.

This is why it ended early, which leads to the real downside of the series. It has a rushed ending.

The twists and turns and growth that happen in this series is more than anything a series like Beelzebub ever managed. The plot moves, things happen and the story advances, and yet it never feels badly paced. Which says a lot as it is only 16 volumes long.

Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but the series should have been longer. Unfortunately, the author was told to wrap it up by the editor just as the story entered the final arc. As a result, a series that should have been around 20 volumes ended up at 16 instead. It was cut off early because it just didn't match the tone of the magazine and they wanted a new series closer to their (at the time) very bland direction. Psyren was clearly a victim of its era.

No one is really sure why it was officially canceled as it had good magazine rankings and sales, had two novels and a drama CD, and was popular overseas, but it was still hobbled by the state of the industry at the time. There was, as baffling as it is to say, no anime for it, despite it still ranking on lists of manga that should have adaptions and never got one even though it ended over seven years ago.

There was little reason to cancel it. It was certainly replaced by a series no one remembers these days, especially in such a forgettable era for manga. Honestly, even though Psyren should have been around 20 volumes with a fully fleshed out finale, the rushed nature of the final arc doesn't hurt the series that much. All the events play out as they should and all the important questions are answered, and the ending is picture perfect.

It's, simply put, a great read.

My advice is that if you are a fan of genre stories and manga or anime that you go into this one blind. I can promise you that you won't read anything else like it, even now where manga is the best its been in years.

But there were some gems that still remained buried, despite the need to be uncovered. Psyren is definitely one of them. Don't pass it up.

Now that shonen manga is in another age of quality it is the perfect moment to go back and find what was missed because there is a good amount of buried treasure. Psyren is easily one of the best, and deserved better than it ultimately got, though those that read it still remain loyal to it years after its run has completed.

At the end of the day, that's what truly matters.

And if you're interested in action packed novels, I have one of my own.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Wasteland & Sky: Best of 2017 Planetary Awards Nomination

It's that time of year again, the time for nomination for the Planetary Awards! Here's where we vote for the best of the best for 2017 as a whole in two categories. I'm finding it a bit difficult to choose nominees as so many good works.

2018 should prove to be even better with both the Pulp Revolution and Superversive stepping on the gas. But until then we should take a look back at some of the stories we might have missed this year. High quality material was everywhere.

Without further ado, here are my nominees.

Shorter Work

"Death on the Moon" by Spencer E. Hart

For short fiction I'm going to be a contrarian this year and vote for Death on the Moon by Spencer E. Hart from Cirsova Issue #6. This was a delight of a sci-fi detective noir that gave me everything I want in a short story. It was a bit overlooked this year, but I think it deserves a second look.

Longer Work

"Good to the Last Drop" by Declan Finn

This series was a pleasant surprise from start to finish. As someone who likes mystical and legendary creatures like vampires and werewolves, it was hard to find stories where they weren't neutered or softened in image.

But the Love At First Bite books managed two tricks. It blended genres effortlessly and raised stakes believably through four books while at the same time opening the world up to an apocalyptic-like ending which contrasted quite a deal with its humble beginnings. If there was any justice, these books would have been optioned for film adaptions by now.

Good to the Last Drop was easily the best of the bunch, and that is a great thing to say when talking about a series.

As it is, it was my most enjoyed read of 2017. Don't pass this series up!

And that's my take on best of 2017. What's yours?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cirsova Double Review!

It's been a while since I covered Cirsova. This is mostly down to having such a packed 2017 but also because I had so much to read. After that giant double issue review it just took me a while to work my way back to it. But I managed. That out of the way, I'm going to start this review with issue #5!

Issue #5 was different for Cirsova as it was the special Eldritch Earth volume. Here the main theme was, you guessed it, Lovecraftian abominations in the distant past where the world is a much different place. This initiative was started by Misha Burnett, author extraordinaire as well as writer for one of the stories here. What all this does is give issue 5 a much different feel from the others as it has a strong horror tone throughout where almost every tale is just dripping with ephemeral terror and eerie monsters out of Lovecraft's warped imagination.

These are hard stories to review individually because they all blend together in style. It is not an insult to the authors, as this is a theme they are following, but most had the same atmosphere and dour ending that it made it hard for me to distinguish which ones stood out more overall. Brian K. Lowe contributed two stories (War of the Ruby and Shapes in the Fog) which respectively set the tone and wrap up the theme, so I will point to him for the highlights and for catching the general mood.

If I do not come across as enthused, it is only because my interest in Lovecraft is not as strong as it probably should be. This is not a slight against the stories in this style. I enjoyed them all, and found myself on the edge of my seat wondering how they would end. If you are a Lovecraft fan, you will certainly enjoy the lot. Eerie settings, doomed protagonists, and more intangible monstrosities than you can shake a dead albino supergenius at. This is a definite step up from #4 making #5 is a return to form issue.

There's also a novella by Schuyler Hernstrom. If you've ever read anything by him, then you already know what you're in for, but if not, then let me set the stage for you. A warrior has lost his love and must travel a dangerous land and consult a "sorcerer" to help get her back. But will his journey be worth the risk of a price higher than death? Suffice to say, the journey for the reader is definitely worth it.

It goes without saying that Mr. Hernstrom's story was easily my favorite in the issue. It's a good old fashioned adventure tale with excellent action and intriguing world-building. His stories are always my favorite in Cirsova, and this was no different. It's also a long one!

Unlike issue #4 where there were a handful of stories that did nothing for me (including one I outright disliked) there was nothing here that turned me away. As a full issue, this is the strongest since #3, and probably the third best overall.

Pick it up!

But we're not done yet.

Issue #6 closes off Cirsova's 2017 output with another strong entry. The first three stories in particular had me reeling. The Last Job on Harz and Death on the Moon are detective stories in space and The Battlefield of Keres is a fantasy adventure with a horror bent. The issue is worth the price for these three stories alone. They had me hooked from start to to finish and were exactly the type of tales I come to Cirsova for.

But that isn't to sell the remaining stories short. Every one of these is strong. Kurt Magus returns with another exciting Othan story and Harold. R. Thompson gives up Temple of the Beast, an adventure story with a deadly creature and a heartbreaking betrayal. And this issue even includes another Adrian Cole "Dream Lords" tale which, as you can imagine, is incredible on its own. This issue is a bounty of riches.

#6 concludes with another delicious entry in James Hutchings' My Name is John Carter epic poetry piece and a second novelette. The novelette is another delight from Abraham Strongjohn, the long awaited sequel to his story At the Feet of Neptune's Queen from issue one. This is a perfect piece to end on, coming full circle from where it started in the first release. This one was thrilling from start to finish.

Actually, the whole issue was.

Issue #6 was a pure delight from page 1 with various different styles of action tales that kept me entertained. As a whole, this is the best issue of Cirsova so far. Every story was as good as the last and is as great the magazine gets. Were you to pick up one issue of the lot, I would suggest this one.

And there you have it. Two great issues from a year that contained much fiction well worth your time. 2017 was a good year for stories, and Cirsova was a big part of it. Wonder, action, mystery, dread, and romance fill every page of these issues. The pulps are back.

You can find issue #5 here and issue #6 here.

I highly anticipate Cirsova's 2018 work. They have their work cut out for them after their last strong year!

For that, you can check out their Kickstarter here.

I'm currently writing action stories of my own. You can read one of them right now!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 is Here!

This is a post I wanted to write to go over the last year of this blog and put everything in perspective. From what I recall 2017 was a wild, wild year.

I was just coming off of the release of Knights of the End and pleased that I finally put out a work I could be proud of. However, it wasn't a clear path from then on. I spent the rest of the year putting what I learned from the Pulp Revolution and the Superversive movement to work in my own writing and ended up not putting out nearly as much as I would have hoped to. Too much time was spent on rewrites! But that can also be explained by some real life mishaps that simply got in the way. It happens.

Still, my 2017 can best be described by one of the first posts I put up this year which was Selective Memory: An Appendix N Post, about the ever-controversial subject (for reasons I still do not understand) of Dungeons and Dragons and its undeniable influence on pop culture and storytelling over the decades. My takeaway from the whole project was that what came before us is valuable and worth exploring instead of destroying the past like certain elitist fandoms would prefer. I also learned that I really liked reading this material, so much so that most of my reads this year were split between old pulp works and modern PulpRev output.

From what I can tell, 2017 is the year the Pulp Revolution really began to take off. Many writers released their own works and created a unique ecosystem of crazy fun fiction that made it hard to keep up with. At the same time, traditional publishing put out near nothing of note. Not a good look for them. If 2017 was anything, it was the year of PulpRev.

January was also the month I began Grey Cat Blues which finally, after so many setbacks, released in December. If you want to know why it took so long to come out, well, it wasn't the only thing I was spending 2017 on, as you will see.

February was the month I saw the one film worth paying money for in 2017 and covered the downfall of Japan's Dragon Magazine, one of the most influential pulp-style manga and light novel magazines. It was at this point that the disappointment of modern pop culture was getting to me. Things actually were getting worse. It wasn't just in my head. But I was still writing and hoping to put my own pop culture out there at the same time

This year I took Lent off the blog and social media to focus on writing and got quite a bit done including the first draft of Grey Cat Blues and several short stories. I'll probably be taking another absence again in 2018. But I did make a few posts, including one for my first published short story, Someone is Aiming For You, in the Superhero Anthology by the Crossover Alliance. It was also published again in Paragons by Silver Empire later in the year.

At this time I made a behind the scenes decision to change the focus of my writing to focus on submitting several short stories to different anthologies. All except one was eventually accepted to where they were submitted, but in retrospect I should have focused on getting Grey Cat Blues out instead. The stories ultimately wouldn't release for much longer than I should have been comfortable with and as a consequence my presence was not as out front as it should have been.

So March was productive, and it wasn't. That's the best way to explain it.

However, April also ended up being one of the most productive months on the blog. Many of these posts where shared all over social media, even from people who have never read or shared my posts before. This was the month my traffic really began its climb.

My post on Comic Books came out just as the industry's madness became well known to everyone, I began my four part series on good anime, and I finished off the month with a post focused on the most important topic of entertainment and the arts: entertaining the audience. I suppose being offline for as long as I was gave me plenty of time to think in between drafts.

May was mainly spent on offline problems, but I did put out my second and third posts on my anime series, and another one on self-awareness killing entertainment. At the same time I shelved another novel I was working on for many reasons, which killed a lot of my productivity and wasted too much time. That isn't something I'm going to do again.

But the blog kept doing well.

June was a lighter month with my finishing off my anime series, and writing what might be my most personal post, and an update post regarding book 2 of Knights of the End which ended up getting pushed back indefinitely after I realized I wasted too much time sitting on Grey Cat Blues and getting short stories written and submitted to anthologies. At the same time I began work on another new project. Again, this was clearly the weakest part of my year. I should have absolutely had more released than I ended up releasing.

July ended up being a big event in my offline life, and taking up most of my time. Coupled with the paragraph above and you can see that I definitely wasted too much time. I finished up on Grey Cat Blues, waiting for my editor to have a spare moment, and started on another book I hope to have out in the first quarter of 2018. On the other hand, the blog did have my post on Shonen and its undeniable influence which is one of my favorite posts.

But then August got everything back on track and it has been only going uphill ever since. I posted my single most popular post ever on this blog centered on the End of Pop Culture and I finished Grey Cat Blues and gave it to my editor and wrote another short story in a sitting and got it back from my second editor. Thanks, Brian! My update post clears everything up. I also started working on the Cannon Cruisers podcast with a friend of mine which ended up being a good outlet for movie watching this year. Blog posts were mostly reviews outside my tribute post to the massively underrated Brave Fencer Musashi, though this was the month I got a ton of writing done, including submitting Lucky Spider's Last Stand in pulp speed (I spent one afternoon and night writing and editing it) to the PulpRev Sampler.

September continued on with me finishing the first draft of my novel (still need to get back to it, and will do so very soon!) and began the final edits on Grey Cats Blues. I also put up a series of popular posts centered on the limits of superpowers, the arrogance of modern creators and critics, a post on the fracturing of shared culture, and one on the real reason the X-Men were popular.

Then as things got better, they also got odd.

October was a frustrating month. Grey Cat Blues was completely finished, but all sorts of outside factors led it to being delayed until December. I spent a lot of time arguing with several people about dumb things on top of it and wasting my time. Not again. But we finally got Cannon Cruisers off the ground, and I did get stories released in two different anthologies this month including Paragons and the PulpRev Sampler. I ended the month better than it started, but not getting the book out when it should have been really soured the mood.

In November I finally revealed Grey Cat Blues and spread the word on the vital RetroWave scene. There was also a very popular post the shallowness of modern culture which wasn't spurred on by nothing.

Things were going really well. They only got better.

I also sort of participated in National Novel Writing Month. By which I mean I didn't really take part. I started about halfway through the month on a new novel and went through to the halfway mark of December. Since I was trying to get my novel out at the time and was frustrated editing so much material that wasn't seeing the light of day I took a small break to work on something new as I was waiting for outside forces to catch up to me. The plan was to write 30,000 words of a new project in a month to which I succeeded. I then spent the rest of December finishing the draft and went back to editing previous projects again.

And December was a big month in that I finally released Grey Cat Blues on the public. It outsold Knights of the End quickly and got positive word of mouth. You have no idea the size of the weight that lifted off of me when I finally got it out. Even after I had to go back and forth with amazon to finally put out the paperback for such a silly reason that eventually ended up getting solved by them in one afternoon. It took much too long.

I also put out a post on the state of anime in 2017 and another very popular post spurred on by a really bad year for Hollywood about the loss of common sense on storytelling. These helped cap off a a year that was better to me than I was to myself.

Looking back on it, I can't help but be surprised at how good it really was.

So at the end of the day, 2017 led me to release a new novel and three short stories despite writing over twice (and nearly three times) that amount of material. I actually wrote 3 novels and 6 short stories, which was triple my previous year. I'm hoping to release that much this year and not spend so much time on revisions. 2018 will be even better.

But that's not to sell 2017 short. The blog grew by leaps and bounds, I started a podcast and released a book, I met a lot of really good folks, and learned a lot. As much as 2016 was better than 2015, 2017 was even better. Any problems I had with it are of my own doing. There is a lot of good to talk about, and I think I did so in this post.

Thank you for reading Wasteland & Sky, and I hope you stick with me as we continue into 2018. It's going to be a good year.

In case you missed it, you can check out my most recent work. I can promise it was a lot of fun to write and just as fun read.