30 July 2016

Rough and Rocky Travelin': An Important Anniversary

"It's been rough and rocky travelin', but I'm finally standing upright on the ground."
-Willie Nelson, "Me and Paul"

Today is a special anniversary for me, Dear Reader. One year ago today, I began outpatient treatment at The Brook for suicidal depression. I'm not particularly interested in reviewing how I got to that point. You know your own experiences and if you've been to that point yourself, you know all that matters here is our common frame of reference. If you haven't been in that place, I sincerely hope you continue to avoid it. It ain't no fun, that's for sure.

I'd already spent some time inpatient at Our Lady of Peace in 2011, but I'd never done an outpatient program. One of my greatest fears going into treatment has always been being rejected by other patients because I fail the litmus test for who gets to "really" be depressed. I envision a room full of war veterans and people who have been failed at every turn by our society and have endured horrors I've been spared.

I have a mutually trusting and respecting relationship with my physician, Tiffany (no last names in my blog). I agreed years ago when we began treating my mental health that if or when we reached a point where she felt that I needed to seek hospitalization, I would go. One night last July, I sat up late with a couple of bottles of pain pills I'd been prescribed but hadn't really used. One of them was from a dentist who'd extracted two of my wisdom teeth. I forget why I had the other, but I know it hadn't been prescribed by Tiffany because I'd also promised her after my stint at Our Lady of Peace that I would never use anything she prescribed me to harm myself. I've honored that promise. I'd held onto those unused pain pills because they'd been given to me by other physicians, which created a loophole.

That night, as I contemplated combining every single one of those pills, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend about the dark place where I was. She lives in New Jersey, so she couldn't exactly drop by and sit with me, which in retrospect was part of why I felt comfortable reaching out to her at that time. She persuaded me to contact a suicide helpline. I found one online where I could chat via messenger rather than have to speak with someone. It felt easier to write than to speak at that point. Eventually, that person reported me to the police, who came to my home at something like 2:00 in the morning. There were two cars and three officers. I knew they were coming, so I went outside with my arms extended open and raised to greet them. I was sure they were worried when they got the call that I may have a firearm. Statistically, that's how the majority of males who take their own lives do it.

Once it was established that I do not even own such a weapon and that I was calming down, two of the officers left. The third sat down with me outside on the patio for probably an hour. His compassion, his patience, and his encouragement were everything that we collectively want to believe our law enforcement officers bring to their communities. I surrendered those bottles of pills to him and assured him that I would speak with my physician in the morning. He left me his card, emphasizing to me that I could call at any time of day or night and that he would gladly respond. He understood how to make me feel he was there for me without making me feel pressured.

My physician called in my promise to seek treatment if she deemed it necessary, and I honored that promise. I wasn't going because I gave a damn whether I got better. I didn't even believe I could get better. At best, I could maybe get to a lull in the pain, but it would only return. But I was going because I knew even in that state of mind that there were a lot of people who had invested in me. I owed it to them to exhaust all other options before hitting that little red button, and though I'd gone into inpatient treatment before, I had never done outpatient. I couldn't say I had tried everything and nothing worked, because there was still that left to try.

Back in high school, I learned how to make origami dogs. I've made them sporadically over the years; sometimes to amuse myself, sometimes as an icebreaker, and sometimes because they help me with anxiety. On my first morning of outpatient treatment, I made one while waiting for other patients and our group therapist to enter the room. This particular dog served two of the aforementioned three purposes; it helped with my anxiety, and it turned out to be an important icebreaker.

The first patient to join me in the room could not have been more welcoming. She immediately set me at ease and made me feel okay about being there. She set the tone for that entire first day for me. There was a strong sense of camaraderie in that room. And before our first break of the morning, I felt included in it, and a key reason was the welcome I'd been graciously given by that one patient.

During my check-in, I accounted for how I'd come to be there. One of the things weighing on my mind was the pervasive sense that I couldn't do anything of value. Our group therapist, Jessica, observed that the origami dog had made some of the other patients smile. It was something I was capable of doing, and even if its value was limited, it had value all the same. I rejected that characterization. I saw it as her artificially inflating something trivial.

But then Jessica challenged me to make an origami dog each day.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

I had no interest in keeping the dog, so I decided to give it to a patient who'd made the biggest fuss over it. I asked if she had a name for him. She did: Waylon. I knew at that moment she and I were going to get along just fine!

It became a daily ritual. I made a dog first thing in the morning, always writing the date on the back of the head. Before the end of group, I would give it to another patient. Typically, I would decide the recipient early on and during break when most everyone else went outside to smoke in the fenced-in courtyard, I would place the dog on the table where that patient had been sitting. I never thought to ask if anyone ever discussed wondering who might get the dog when they returned to the room, but it honestly would not surprise me now to learn if they did. At some point, another patient actually bought me a pad of origami paper, already square shaped and in solid colors!


Someone joining the group for the first time went to the top of the list. I had, after all, benefited from the warm welcome. It seemed only right that I should make an effort to receive others in a manner consistent with that precedence. Similarly, someone being discharged would also receive one as a farewell memento. Sometimes the recipient was someone who had had a particularly rough session. It was a little consolation prize of sorts. The longer patients were there, the more they seemed to ascribe value to the dogs. There were times when, in the final minutes of a session, someone would ask me who that day's recipient would be. Because there were only so many other group members, there were patients who accrued several dogs as I rotated through the roster.

Jessica was right, though I doubt she envisioned the way those little origami dogs became a sort of mascot for our group. Generally, I explained the dogs to newcomers, but there were times when enthusiastic patients beat me to the punch. Those moments reminded me of children showing off something neat to one another. "And this one guy makes dogs and he might even give one to you since it's your first day!" The whole thing amused me, of course, though there were a few instances where I gave someone a dog and they expressed to me sincere appreciation for making them smile with it because they were having such a difficult time finding anything remotely positive in their world. In those moments, the dog became a tangible expression that that person was not alone, that we in that room cared about one another.

Despite the progress I made, it wasn't enough. By early September, I felt a return of that same despair. One night while out celebrating a friend's birthday, I sat alone at a booth while everyone else was on the dance floor or mingling elsewhere. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my calendar, looking to see when my loved ones' birthdays were. I didn't want to ruin anyone's day, after all.

And then, out of nowhere, came a young woman who sat across from me in the booth. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Don't do it."

I was, to say the least, stunned. I tried to ambiguously dodge her, asking what she meant. But we both knew exactly what she meant. She explained that she could tell just from looking at me where I was and what I was planning. Some of her friends came looking for her and when they found us sitting together, voiced their objections that she shouldn't be spending her time with someone as old as me. I tried to reassure them I had no romantic or sexual intentions of any kind, but I don't think they believed me.

No, I had none of those things on my mind. I was too consumed with processing what was happening. I could have understood it if someone who knew me had read me so accurately and quickly, but there was this stranger out of the ether who was challenging me to my face. That was a Saturday night. During Monday morning's check-in, I shared this and admitted that I didn't trust myself not to act on those urges. Jessica saw to it that I was admitted that day into the inpatient program. I spent a week there. I kept making origami dogs each day, because I told Jessica I would. Plus, they served the same purposes they always served; they amused me, they broke the ice with some other patients, and they gave me something to do while I was feeling anxious.

Though I was discharged from The Brook in October, Jessica introduced me to three important parts of my ongoing mental healthcare. One of them is a free meditation app called Stop, Breathe & Think. I had never tried meditating before, and I was surprised to find it so impacting. It's helped me significantly with finding peaceful moments, and it's helped me to establish and maintain some semblance of a healthy sleeping pattern. (It gets disrupted regularly, but the meditating has made a world of difference in helping me reestablish it.)

The second key element is my therapist, Carrie. The Brook insists on patients having an aftercare plan in place before being discharged, including at least one scheduled appointment with a therapist. I'd had a demoralizing experience with one therapist in 2013. (When I expressed to her that I was deflated because I know I'm going to die alone and be eaten by the cats, she told me I should work on accepting that and making my peace with it, for instance.) But Jessica played matchmaker and emphasized that she was confident that Carrie would be a good fit for me. She was entirely right. Carrie has been patient, compassionate, encouraging, and respectful. She has also called me out on things at times. One of the requirements I have for admitting someone into my inner circle is that I have to trust that that person will stand up to me. Not only do I know I need to be kept in check at times, but it makes it easier for me to accept kind words from such people because I know they're not trying to mollify me. (I still struggle with accepting those kind words, but I know I can't dismiss them as easily as I dismiss them from others.)

Lastly, Jessica encouraged me to attend a meeting of our local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA is a nationwide organization. On 20 August 2015, I finally gave in and took a chance on it. Again, I felt the same anxieties; would they tell me to get out of there, that they only had time for people with real problems? And again, I was made to feel welcomed in short order. The regular attendees there have cultivated a warm, safe atmosphere. They have made me feel trusted, respected, and liked. I've become a facilitator there, generally every other Tuesday evening.

One thing I've learned over this last year is that I already know what I have to do to properly manage my mental health. But when I have reprieves, like many other patients with chronic conditions, I tend to lapse in maintaining those habits. Becoming a facilitator at DBSA has ensured that I continue attending, even now that I feel the stablest and happiest I've been in three years. (I can make that claim with the confidence that my inner circle has expressed a consensus about this, that they've seen a significant change in me over this past year. One friend who I'm still getting to know but has quickly earned my trust and admiration told me just last night that I'm almost a different person from the one she saw a year ago!)

I invite you to join us at a DBSA meeting, Dear Reader, should you feel that you might benefit from attending. I can assure you that you will be greeted with the same warmth and compassion that greeted me last August, and I can offer that assurance because I've seen it extended to others at every turn. You'll find a link to a group locator on their website below.

The very last patient to join my outpatient group at The Brook was an active duty soldier. As was typical, I was the first (and only) person in the room when he arrived that morning. I greeted him and tried to answer his questions and set him at ease. He had been deployed twelve times throughout his career, including five times to Afghanistan. And he told me the single scariest thing he'd ever done was coming to The Brook that morning. I share that because I hope it might give you, Dear Reader, a little more ease about seeking treatment yourself. It is scary. So scary that this man felt less comfortable than he felt about going into a literal war zone. But that scariness comes from the uncertainty of what will transpire.

My hope in sharing all of this is that those of you with similar experiences might come away from this post feeling a little less alone, and maybe a little more encouraged about the potential for improving your own mental health management. And as always, I also hope that those of you who haven't had these experiences have gained some insight into what people like me have gone through.

RESOURCES
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
Stop, Breathe & Think

18 July 2016

Finding Purpose and Value in Superman

You know how sometimes you do something, but it isn't until later that you find a meaningful purpose for whatever it was that you did? I recently had such an experience. I've debated blogging about it at all because it feels self-congratulatory, and I can only ask that you trust me, Dear Reader, that that isn't my purpose. Rather, I hope that this post might be an example -- a sort of little reminder, you might say -- why you should be mindful of the potential value of things you do. I certainly discount pretty much anything I ever do as soon as I do it, and I know there are others like me who struggle with the same issue.

So, anyway, I follow Gail Simone on Twitter, right? Last week, she re-tweeted a link to a Today Show story about Benjamin Austin, a three year old boy who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Benjamin loves superheroes, and his family thought it might be nice for him to receive sketches of superheroes in the mail as a little pick-me-up. According to the Today Show story, his morale is presently strong, but of course as treatment goes on, that often wanes.

I've done some sketching off and on over the years and I've done my fair share of superheroes, so this seemed like something I ought to do. Like you, I see myriad requests from people for all manner of things on a daily basis, but I'm rarely able to offer any of the kind of material support they need. A sketch, though, is well within my skill set. Plus, I'm in a fairly good place these days regarding my mental health and I know I got here with a lot of help from a lot of people. I feel a certain compulsion (obligation would have the wrong connotation to use here) to try to circulate some positiveness in return now that I'm better able to do so.

Anyway, I pulled out one of my sketchbooks, just thumbing through to find a blank page. I hadn't even settled on a character choice; I figured something would come to me once I was staring at the paper. I never got that far, because along the way, I ran across a sketch I did eight years ago that I forgot I ever did.

We go back to 15 April 2008 at this point in our story, Dear Reader, to a time when I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction. In an effort to while away the time, and give myself something a little enjoyable to do, I decided to try my hand at sketching Superman in the style of Joe Shuster, the artist who co-created and designed the character in 1938. I'd never done a Shuster Superman. I discovered that his art style, which appears fairly simplistic, required a surprising amount of patience and attentiveness. Surely, the frustration of being in a hospital bed factored into my difficulties, but it took me about two hours to complete. I felt it turned out well, and I seldom feel that way about my sketches.

As soon as I came face to face with this piece, I realized it had to be the piece I sent young Benjamin Austin. It just felt right, you know? I wrote a little note (typed, not handwritten, because even my own physician has a hard time reading my writing and you know it's bad when it's too illegible for a doctor) explaining that I'd drawn this when I was "sick" (no need to elaborate) and that it made me feel a little better when I drew it and that I hoped it might make him feel a little better now.

I'm under no illusions that this little sketch will have any real meaning, beyond possibly a few moments of "Hey, that's Superman!" recognition enthusiasm before he moves on to some other sketch. Those few moments, though, give purpose to the sketch; a purpose I never envisioned when I made it.

As I said, I often discount the things that I've done. I seldom recognize that they have any value. And that, I think, is why this admittedly little thing has resonated with me as much as it has. It's a reminder that my perspective on the value of my doings is, shall we say, skewed. It's also a reminder that even if it's a small thing, I am capable of making contributions here and there.

If you'd like to send a sketch of your own, the mailing address provided by the Today Show article is:
Benjamin Austin
c/o The Malta Family
10 Wheatfield Lane
Mountaintop, PA 18707
In any event, what I hope you take away from this post is to be more aware of your own toolkit, whether it be things you've already done that can be made to be helpful to others, or the application of an aptitude that you may take for granted.

Here's a scan I made of the sketch, to which I added the caption and signature before mailing. (It didn't occur to me until after I'd signed it that I dated it 2016 without noting that it was presented to him this year, not illustrated this year, but whatever. It's not like this is museum-bound.)


25 June 2016

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016 Tour

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016
Friday, 24 June 2016
Haymarket Whiskey Bar | Louisville, KY

I'd been waiting years to finally get enough stars to align that I could go see HONEYHONEY when at last that came together two years ago. I'd gotten there early enough to actually observe their three-song soundcheck, with only about seven or eight other people even in the place at that time. Even without any intentional showmanship, they were terrific. It's always hard to guess from studio records how anyone will sound live, and I was thrilled that HONEYHONEY may actually be better live than on record.

Thanks to Crohn's, I haven't gotten to many shows over the last several years, but even with whole years of not seeing one at all, I managed to reach a milestone last night. According to setlist.fm, this was my 100th concert! By happenstance, one of my friends who came along was also there when I attended my first (Garth Brooks, 20 May 1998 at Freedom Hall in Louisville).

The duo of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe (along with drummer Conor Meehan) blended songs from their first three albums, First Rodeo; Billy Jack; and 3, along with a cover of "Lake of Fire" by Meat Puppets, and Jaffe took lead on "A Satisfied Mind". I first heard that song on the album Country Music by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, and then Johnny Cash's version in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 2. Jaffe's arrangement was distinctive from either of those, a demonstration of the understanding of the difference between interpretation rather than imitation that has been central to the band's musical identity.

As I said, this was my second show of theirs and I'm now 0-2 on getting to hear "Thursday Night". Maybe next time? I was surprised when the 17-song set was over that "Little Toy Gun" wasn't in the mix. Since that last show, of course, they released their third album, 3, which I loved. I meant to bring along my vinyl jacket to have them sign, but forgot. Maybe next time? Two years ago, they played a few of the songs that made it onto 3, but it was nice to hear more of them performed live. There's something wondrous about watching musicians navigate the demands of playing as they intend, coaxing out of their instruments the notes that they've crafted, while also finding and exploring the emotional honesty of the song as well as engaging the audience. When Suzanne Santo tears into her fiddle, as on "Big Man", there's almost a sense of her looking for something, and then she finds it and there's a distinctive shift in the energy of the entire show.

Ben Jaffe (left), Conor Meehan (middle), Suzanne Santo (right), buncha drunks (foreground). Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
Ultimately, it was Santo who made this 100th concert truly memorable for me.

I discovered from the website that the venue, Haymarket Whiskey Bar, featured some arcade games...AND SKEE BALL.

I LOVE SKEE BALL.

I prepared for the show by bringing along $10 in quarters. There are two lanes, in a section of the venue betwixt the bar and the music hall. My friends and I played several rounds, razzing one another mercilessly about our mediocrity. After the show had concluded, I still had some quarters remaining and wanted to play a few more games. Enter: Suzanne Santo, fresh from signing the last of any fan requests.

Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
It turns out that she was just as excited by the chance to play skee ball as we were, and enthusiastically joined us. It was a flurry of a conversation, so I can't say definitively who proposed it, but my perception is that she was the one who suggested we play doubles, one duo on each lane. She partnered with me. I'd like to say that we dominated because we're the best skee ball players in the world, but there's no photographic evidence to affirm such a claim.

Though it was great fun playing skee ball with her, that alone wasn't what made this such a perfect 100th concert experience. There's one little detail that will stand out to me more than anything else from this show, and that was the reaction that Suzanne had when she discovered that I was paying for the games with my own change. Her face reflexively went to that look of "I wish I'd known!" guilt that we make when we find out something that changes the context of what we'd done. She even said she felt bad that I was spending my own money for her to get to play and that she would go get quarters.

I assured her I'd brought the quarters for the very purpose of playing, and more importantly that I had loved the show. (Besides, I think I spent, like, $2.00, for the two games that both lanes played.) She accepted it when I outlined the reasons why it was okay for her to play without putting in her own quarters, but I will forever cherish that little moment of such consideration and sweetness. You can be trained in playing instruments, to cultivate a public persona, and a lot of other things. But thoughtfulness is either genuine or it doesn't exist, and that little moment was heartwarming and became my new #1 reason for being a fan.

honeyhoney Setlist Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Louisville, KY, USA 2016

19 June 2016

Gun Control Measures: An Open Letter

Tomorrow, the United States Senate will vote on two bills that seek to address some conspicuously gaping holes in our regulations of firearms. One would require universal background checks for all prospective buyers, and the other would revoke legal access to purchasing firearms from those already on the no-fly list. DailyKos.com is organizing an online petition, which you can sign through the form at the bottom of this post.

Being a Kentuckian, represented in the Senate by Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, I expect my efforts to be dismissed out of hand. But for whatever value it may have, here is the content of the letter that I composed to accompany my signature:

While I appreciate the significance of safeguarding our civil rights, I also appreciate that we've made reasonable compromises along the way. To wit, we already restrict minors and convicted felons from legally purchasing firearms. Surely, those on a terror watchlist have also raised enough suspicion that prudence would be served by restricting them as well, without sacrificing the spirit of the Second Amendment.

Additionally, I have diagnoses of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. I was hospitalized in September with suicidal depression. But because I admitted myself voluntarily, I can still legally purchase a gun. This greatly concerns me, as well as members of the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance that I've come to know in Louisville.

We already have a voluntary "do not sell" list for people with gambling addictions. It seems to me that creating a voluntary "do not sell" list for people like me with mental illnesses who recognize that we ought not have access to firearms could join of our own volition (thereby sidestepping the controversial matter of governmental restrictions).

I expect to receive a generic "Thanks for contacting me concerning this issue, but I'm voting the other way" reply as I have to every other petition I've signed over the years. But it is my sincere hope that you will recognize the importance of taking measured, reasonable action in the face of such serious threats to our society.

To sign the petition and send a letter to your Senator, follow this link:



"Clean Room" #9 by Gail Simone

Clean Room #9, cover by Jenny Frison.
Clean Room #9
"Hell Above Us and Heaven Below"

Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Shelly Bond & Molly Mahan - Editors
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone
32 pages | $2.99 | Published 15 June 2016

After the intensity of issue #8, I knew only one thing for certain: I wanted to read issue #9 as soon as possible. I did buy it on Wednesday, but have been kept busy enough that I hadn't had time to sit down with it and accord it the attention it deserved until now.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

We open on a striking full page overhead shot of Astrid Mueller under the knife, unattributed dialogue blurbs detailing her medical condition and the efforts being taken to save her life. There are also a few such blurbs in an entirely different font that must surely belong to an Entity taunting Astrid. The first reads, "Honk if you love the devil" and the last, "It's harvest time in the meat hospital." Lettering usually goes unacknowledged, but Todd Klein has certainly helped to define the voices of the characters in this book.

Of course, more than all that is the splash page image of Astrid's face being cut right down the middle, her entire head split down to her upper lip by the scalpel and her forehead falling to either side in limp masses. We see some of her hair and the flesh of her throat and shoulders, but the page is dominated by what I think is a detail of her insides being overtaken by toothy parasites. Microscopic Entities, perhaps? It's a surreal image, so it's hard to even guess how literal that visual is, but the gist seems clear enough: Astrid has some issues.

Amazingly, Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter actually managed to one-up that opening page later in this issue, on story page 13, another splash page set during a flashback of young Astrid discovering what I guess is the Entity's ship. I'm gonna be honest: the only thing in all of fiction that has staggered me like this in terms of scale and ominousness was Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie. This thing is eerie as hell, sort of a twisted amalgamation of Bowser's Airship and the Crystal Castle that She-Ra defends. One cannot miss the dominant color of this thing being Astrid's primary color, pink.

Otherwise, the story isn't quite as intense as the last one, though that's more because issue #8 was just that perfect than because of any flaws with issue #9. The showdown between Chloe and Killian in the Clean Room over the former having brought Spark with her felt a bit rote since it was pretty obvious that Spark would, in fact, act to save Astrid. Of course, the final two story pages certainly restored the unpredictable nature of this book and negated pretty much all of the compassion for Astrid that we've felt for the last month since watching her be shot. The last time I felt this invested in -- and conflicted by -- a character in any medium, it was J.R. Ewing.

Speaking of shady Texans, we also meet a pair of "Christians" in Austin who clearly have designs on poaching Astrid's followers. My early guess is that we'll find they, too, know about the Entities (I don't think it's a coincidence that Chloe describes how the Entities have been perceived as demons over the years and been exorcised at times), though whether they're in league with at least some faction of the Entities is up in the air. As I've said often, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone!

One last thing: I think this cover is my favorite of all nine so far by Jenny Frison. I really dig her covers for issues #5 and #7, but there's something about the dark shading here that makes this one more striking than it would have been had it been lit with the same aesthetic as previous covers. In a different context, Astrid's facial expression could be read as coy and/or sensual. But in this dark light (and three hands at her throat), it's creepy as hell.

26 May 2016

"Clean Room" #7-8 by Gail Simone

Because of physical health issues, I was too miserable to read issue #7 until well after it was published, and it took me almost a full week to even buy issue #8 after it was published, but I'm finally caught up! At the conclusion of the first arc, The Surgeon declined to clarify for Chloe Pierce (or us) whether the Entities are aliens or demons, instead characterizing them as "inmates". Astrid Mueller and Chloe reached something of an accord, the latter beginning to better understand the former's actual work and coming to see that Astrid has been playing a long game to combat the Entities.

Clean Room #7
"High Way to Hell"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 20 April 2016

This story functions as a sort of interlude between the book's opening arc and the one that begins with the next issue. We open seventeen years ago with Astrid, age 17, hitchhiking her way through New Mexico to meet a hospitalized woman named Anika Wells. Anika, we learn, is a survivor of an attack by the Entities who staged the attempted murder of Astrid in her childhood. Their shared traumatic contact with their tormentors becomes the basis for a relationship that's genuinely touching to observe.

Story page 6, panels 4 and 5, alone offers us a glimpse at something we've not seen in Astrid to date: vulnerability. She sighs with heaviness in panel 4, then recomposes herself and moves forward with her characteristic outward resolve as she personally delivers Anika's meal. It's not until story page 7 that we see the extent of what the Entities did to Anika, a body ravaged down the middle, her left side shriveled and feeble. Astrid wants to talk about Chloe and what finding her could mean, but Anika is too far gone in depression. "You have to let me go," she repeats. And then we see something extraordinary: Astrid takes Anika's hand and kisses it, beginning to break down. She leans down to hug Anika, declaring, "I'm sorry. I can't do this without you."

This is an intriguing line of dialogue to interpret as a reader. Read only in text, it could be taken rather coldly, as though Astrid was denying Anika the release she's begging for because she still serves a purpose to Astrid. But with Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork, we are able to find a far softer meaning to the words. This isn't just about whatever function Anika performs for Astrid. It's about Astrid unable to bring herself to let go of the one person we've seen that matters to her. She's human after all.

On story page 11, we learn that after surviving the attempt on her life, Astrid became able to see the Entities..."starting with [her] own father." The matter isn't explored further here, but it recalls a moment in issue #1, when Astrid, recovering in her hospital room, asks her mother, "Why is Papa's face made of snakes?" We later see Astrid having a Clean Room session all to herself, observing her family at church just before the attack. She's interrupted by The Surgeon, who explains that the Entities tried to kill her because they knew she could see them, and unintentionally "unlocked" that ability that had been dormant before the attack. Ironic, no?

Way back in issue #2, we saw the Clean Room session of Dwight Fennister, for whom we initially were made to feel compassion before finding out that he had been sexually abusing children. Chloe was incensed that Astrid dismissed him without contacting the authorities. I surmised at the time that "I expect we're going to see Detective Markos find his mangled corpse at some point, tormented into killing himself by the hallucinations that appear to be developed in the Clean Room."

As it happens, The Surgeon presents Astrid with Fennister's severed genitals. He even seems put off by the matter, more disturbed by Astrid turning him loose instead of working with him, knowing that some gruesome fate awaited him. In legal terms, Astrid is clearly guilty of depraved indifference. But we also are left to weigh for ourselves how much we agree with her decision, something that will vary from reader to reader. I've contemplated this ever since that second issue back in November, and I still don't know how I feel about it. The fairest thing I know to say is that I don't think I could really know without being in that situation. If there's one thing Gail Simone does well as a storyteller, it's to take something complex and make it accessible without making it simplistic.

Elsewhere, Chloe and Detective Demakos compare notes on Astrid and how she fits into the rash of horrific suicides that the latter has been investigating. On story pages 15 and 16, he's the one who first tells us of Dwight Fennister. I had my "Aha!" moment then, but it wasn't until The Surgeon confronted Astrid about him that it really had weight. Chloe floats a theory that perhaps the Entities don't even care about humanity, that whatever effect they have on us isn't even malicious but more incidental. "What if we were just in the road when they drove through? What if we're jaywalkers in a never-ending hit-and-run? What if we're just..just...road-kill?"

We've learned more than Chloe has, and I don't believe the Entities are quite as detached as that. Their interactions, especially the ones that end in mangled corpses and tormented survivors, aren't passive happenstances. They're deliberate acts. But it does speak to the potential scale of just what is going on and how insignificant humanity may well be. We'll see.

Clean Room #8
"A Critical Event"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 18 May 2016

I'd already seen tweets shared by Gail Simone of reactions to this issue, though thankfully ambiguous enough that I went in only knowing that it was shocking and intense without knowing what actually happens in it.

WELP.

We open with Astrid giving a lecture and then being shot on a double splash page (4-5) by what turns out to be her brother Peter. And the rest of the issue is dedicated solely to the aftermath of the shooting, with Astrid's team scrambling to apprehend her shooter and get her into surgery. Killian Reed, Astrid's "right hand", is given orders of what to do in this scenario. They include finding Chloe Pierce, whom Astrid is designating as her successor.

Yeah, those tweeters weren't exaggerating. Issue #1 was pretty rough on me chiefly because I was unprepared for the conversations and depictions of suicides. I also still hadn't quite finished stabilizing my own mental health at that point. I've found subsequent issues compelling and intriguing, certainly, but my reactions have been more cerebral than emotional...until now.

We're used to comic books shooting or even completely killing characters. But we're also used to the aftermath being more about revenge, with moments of sadness and reflection pushed back to the end of the story. It's sufficient to affect some readers, but I can't recall it ever really happening for me. The very first comic book I ever bought was The Transformers #24, which concluded with the death of Optimus Prime. Talk about a doozy to walk into..! That set the tone for me as a reader.

Despite the fantastic/supernatural Entities, Clean Room has so far been grounded in recognizable reality. Dedicating this entire issue just to Astrid's team reacting to her being shot is the finest example so far, because there's a realness to their reactions. Capone is furious and explosive. Killian is forced to restrain herself to only seething, with too many things to attend to to take time to process anything. The issue is frenetic, and Jon Davis-Hunt deserves special recognition for how visceral the whole thing is visually. Facial reactions are always important for conveying emotion and mood, and this whole issue is wall to wall emotion and mood. He brought his A game, though, and elevates this issue to about as high a level as I think I've ever experienced in a comic.

Story page 15, in which Killian extorts a surgeon into abandoning one patient to rush to Astrid, reveals to us some new insight into what the organization knows (or, at least, what it's been telling the suckers lining up to fill its coffers; hard to tell). In panel 4 of this page, Killian threatens: "When they come...when they take Earth and only the blue card allows entry into sanctuary...your family will burn with the rest of humanity." Armageddon is quite an escalation from the Entities coercing people into committing suicide or attacking them themselves, but the other key thing to glean from this is that the characterization of it sounds more like Killian is describing an alien invasion than a demonic uprising. Again, though, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone and this may be a misread on my part.

One last thing. I haven't really mentioned Jenny Frison's covers for the series so far, save for sharing in my review of issue #4 a sketch that a friend of mine did based on her cover for issue #2 that he had me brush over with water to demonstrate the wash feature of my sketching pencils. The cover to issue #8 is the least immediately engaging cover of the series to date, but as the story progressed I came to appreciate its significance. This is not at all the kind of cover we're used to seeing for such an issue; on the contrary, we're used to seeing covers that are far more exciting than the stories that take place on the inside. There's something about the muted grays and soft pink highlights in particular that make the stoic, static image of Duncan, Killian, and Capone standing together with pistols held up feel eerier than I initially gave it credit. This isn't a poster-friendly piece, but it may be the most daring of the book's run so far.

Clean Room #1 Complete Script
Written by Gail Simone | Limited Edition of 30
Issue One (Second Revision)
Sold by Gail Simone at Emerald City Comicon, 27-29 March 2016

By happenstance, one of my friends attended Emerald City Comicon this year and I was able to arrange to have him pick up for me one of the thirty copies of this script that Gail Simone had printed for sale. I've long been fascinated by things like screenplays and scripts, and when the opportunity arose to get hold of this, I leaped at it. In particular, I wanted to see what this twisted book looked like in its infancy. This is what Clean Room looked like before Jon Davis-Hunt created the series's visual aesthetics.

I've read in other scripts of Simone's that she often describes specifically what she does -- and does not -- want in a given shot. There are explicit directions, for instance, that in the scene where Chloe wades topless into the water to drown that it not be at all sexualized. She also provided Davis-Hunt with links to online images for references of some of the things that she wanted, including the German town of Unna, where the Entity attack on Astrid took place.

Perhaps the most interesting line of direction that I read was about story page eight:
If you have ever conveyed despair, and giving up, in an image, this is the one to heap that feeling on, please. It's tragic, how perfect her resolve is. But sad, because everything she is and all the gifts she has are not enough, they bring her no comfort.
That's a hell of a thing to task an artist with imagining and realizing. (Of course, Jon Davis-Hunt deftly created the imagery that was asked of him in the published issue.)

I also learned a few little details that I don't think I consciously processed from the issue, including the fact that "The truck has a ROOK design on the door, like a rook in chess". I also got a kick for some reason out of the specificity that there "are two mostly empty bottles of cheap RED wine." I know that Simone doesn't drink, so I found it all the more curious that it be important to her that the wines be red. (For whatever it's worth, I'm almost exclusively into reds, so I approve of Simone's and Chloe's taste.)

After reading this script and the last two issues, Astrid has been solidified as one of my favorite comic characters. It did not escape my notice that the back cover of this script is a solid pink page.

Credits, Issues #7 & #8
Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Rowena Yow - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #7)
Molly Mahan - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #8)
Shelly Bond - Editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone

20 May 2016

"Clean Room" #5-6 by Gail Simone

I've fallen behind in blogging about Clean Room, but I've remained an active reader until last month. I bought issue #7 on time, but only today got around to reading it. Issue #8 came out yesterday. I've simply been too physically run down to do much of anything, including reading comics, for most of the last month. And, let's be honest: Clean Room isn't comfort food. So here's the first of two catch-up posts, this one devoted to issues #5 and #6, which conclude the book's opening arc, which will be collected next month as Clean Room Vol. 1: Immaculate Conception.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Clean Room #5
"All the Wrong Places"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 17 February 2016

Issue #5 picks up exactly where issue #4 left off, with Astrid in the Clean Room, where her assistant Terry had just shot in the head Jonas Kemf, the man who drove the truck that ran over Astrid as a child. Jonas was hosting an Entity, and Terry shot him out of fear. Astrid reacted not with gratitude, but with anger and despair; having the Entity trapped in her Clean Room was her objective. Losing the advantage of having him contained for questioning would be disastrous.

So...time for disaster!

News of actor and Astrid follower Rand Tanner's suicide is setting off a public relations nightmare for the organization. Killian Reed's solution was to dispatch underling Capone to blackmail movie star Chrissy Delecorte into throwing Reed under the bus by making a public statement that he'd rejected Astrid's efforts to help him. This takes place on story pages 5-7, primarily in Delecorte's hot tub. If we were to look at Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork without any captions, it might appear to be some kind of seduction. Capone strips completely nude and wades into the hot tub, even managing to get Chrissy to use a massager on her back by the end of the sequence.

But there are captions on those pages, and they're outright sinister. Capone quickly outlines that the organization already knows Chrissy is pregnant, and how that will be incorporated into the lies Chrissy will tell about Rand Tanner. If she cooperates, the organization will get her movie career back on track. Otherwise, they'll destroy her. Capone outlines all of this in a mere eight panels. This is something straight out of Dallas, y'all, and I love me some Dallas.

I also want to praise Jon Davis-Hunt for his work on this sequence. The body language and facial expressions are perfect. Chrissy is clearly defensive; Capone, predatory. Look at the last two panels of story page 6. The change in Capone's expression, from narrowed eyes and clenched jaw to wide toothed grin is outright creepy. The entire power dynamics between the two women shifted in the few centimeters between those two panels. It takes Chrissy the next page to realize it, but we know from Capone's smile that she's already won.

Credit also to Quinton Winter's colors throughout the book, but especially that sequence. The blue hues make it an inviting setting, but the lighting on the characters' faces is just eerie enough that at a glance, we can tell that even if we might want to be in that hot tub, we wouldn't want to be there now.

Why did I just devote four paragraphs to a three-page minor plot point, other than that it occasioned me to mention my love for Dallas? Because it's a great example of how Simone has kept this world rooted in our own. It would be easy to just focus at this point on the Entities; they're either supernatural or extraterrestrial or whatever they are, but whatever it is, it's inherently more exciting than extortion for the sake of good publicity.

In the long run, it's easy to guess that how the public views Astrid will become increasingly important to the plot, and this is an early, small move whose consequences may or may not become important as we go. Even if it doesn't, though; even if Chrissy Delecorte and Rand Tanner are never mentioned again, we'll have spent three full pages watching how Astrid's people conduct business and being reminded that there are still other things transpiring in this storytelling universe aside from the Entities. In short, by focusing on something so small, it expands the scope of the story.

Most of the rest of issue 5 is devoted to Astrid confronting the Entity, who has taken over Terry, and Chloe confronting another Entity named Spark. Not much happens there, but I do want to make mention of one thing. Spark explains to Chloe that one of the things he did to a previous victim whom he possessed: "I made her say the most AWFUL things. Sex things."

When I was in inpatient treatment last year for my own mental health issues, there was a patient there suffering from decades of PTSD related to abuse. She tried to talk about her experiences, but kept covering her mouth and crying, saying she didn't want to be a bad girl and say those things, but that a demon insisted she would, or else he would do heinous things to her. It was possibly the most heartbreaking thing I've ever experienced. I'm not qualified to say just what that "demon" was that tormented this other patient, but I want to believe that maybe it might find some semblance of Spark's remorse and that she's able to begin finding some of the peace that she's been cheated out of her whole life.

These life experiences of mine aren't on Gail Simone's mind when she writes, of course, but they're things that are part of my relationship with her work. She brushes against them, sometimes throttling them. Sometimes I see something in a single panel that provokes a visceral flashback. Sometimes I reflexively fill in the blanks of what she's written, even if she didn't intend there to be blanks to be filled in at all.

Anyway, back to the actual story. Astrid uses the Clean Room to exploit what she knows of Terry's carried guilt to break the Entity's hold on him. The more I think about the Clean Room and what Astrid accomplishes there, the more I think of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Except, where Sybok used his ability to tap into peoples' most traumatizing life experiences to help them find release so he can recruit them into his cult, Astrid uses it to gain leverage.
"I'll let you in on a little secret, Terry. I don't choose my rooks for their invulnerability. It's important that I have a fail-safe, do you understand? I need to be able to break them. So I leave a crack in the tea cup." - Astrid, story page 20, panels 4 and 5.
Again, I have to praise Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork. This is a cold thing to do and admit, but there's obvious tenderness from Astrid at this moment. She knows she's just severely hurt Terry, and she knows his time as her assistant has come to an end. And she'll go to bed at night knowing it was necessary, because otherwise the Entity was going to kill her and do God knows what else with Terry. But in this moment, she's surprisingly soft. Notice also that she keeps her hands on her own knees, rather than make any physical contact with Terry. It's a striking visual reminder of the distance Astrid maintains between herself and others.

Oh, and the Entity named Spark flakes out on murdering Chloe, so The Surgeon arrives at the end of the issue to deal with her himself.

Clean Room #6
"The Surgeon Walks"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 16 March 2016

The first arc of the book reaches its crescendo, as Chloe is confronted by the Entity known as "The Surgeon", who appears as an elderly white guy who looks about as threatening as former President Jimmy Carter. He speaks with the measured, elaborate mannerisms of a southern gentleman. When Chloe first opens her door to him, he introduces himself on story page 9: "Well, hello, Chloe. You're looking just fine, little missy. But you have put us in a real pickle. May I come in?"

No, Gail Simone isn't reinventing the wheel here to make her villain well-mannered and polite. It's an old juxtaposition. But, like dedicating three pages to Capone's hot tub extortion in issue #5, it's something that fleshes out the scope and flavor of this universe. Credit her for deciding he isn't "just" polite, but elaborately so. Within that four sentence introduction, we've already deduced that he's soft-spoken. But we can also hear the Southern accent without any of the exaggerated phonetic spellings that comic book writers often inject to make sure readers get that. Creating a distinctive voice is difficult in the first place (or, at least, it has been for me in my writing efforts to date), but to make it so clear from the outset is truly impressive. Don't believe me? Try it. Make up the first few sentences an imaginary character all of your own invention would say.

It certainly helps, of course, to have Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter creating the visuals. An entire page is dedicated to The Surgeon being revealed at Chloe's door on story page 9. It's nighttime, so the exterior world is appropriately dark, but there's surprising restraint regarding the lighting. There isn't anything overtly ominous about the image. Even with the dialog captions, it looks entirely benign...at least, taken out of context and viewed all by itself.

There are two revelations in this issue. Firstly, Spark shows Chloe what actually happened to her fiance Philip: a recording from Astrid explaining the Entities and shows him some of their handiwork, all of which overwhelms him. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was originally shaken by the book's suicide content when I read issue #1 to the point that I thought maybe I shouldn't even keep going. Perhaps there's no handier illustration just how much work I've done over the previous several months on my mental health than to say that I'm stable enough now that seeing Philip hold the gun under his chin on story page 7, with "BLAMM" sound effect in red and panels of his blood splashing on the observing cat didn't trigger an anxiety attack.

When I read issue #2, I wrote the following:
The top panel of story page 18 has Astrid coldly dismiss Chloe's insistence that she couldn't just let Fennister go: "I am not law enforcement, Chloe. I was looking for something else." Chloe believes that Astrid has shrugged off Fennister's confession, having deemed him "clean", but I expect we're going to see Detective Markos find his mangled corpse at some point, tormented into killing himself by the hallucinations that appear to be developed in the Clean Room. That, in turn, begs the question what it is that Chloe will eventually find out about her deceased fiance, Philip, that preyed on him so much that he killed himself. We know now that Astrid doesn't directly make someone suicidal; rather, they are killed by the manifestation of what is "cleaned" from them. This is rich ground for storytelling, because it gets at themes of morality and the shades of gray where monsters can become sympathetic and heroes become soiled.
So I was partly right; Astrid does use the Clean Room to break through whatever checks a person has in place against their torment, but it isn't because she's playing Judge, Jury & Executioner, and what happened to Philip wasn't his own darkness being used against him. It was him being completely overwhelmed by what she shared with him about the Entities. I suspect we're meant to infer that may have also been what prompted Rand Tanner to take his life. It's a bit like Navy SEAL training, which notoriously breaks many candidates, except instead of being a grueling challenge of the human body's ability to survive inhospitable environs, she loses potential recruits to the fragility of their minds to process what she's exposing.

I'm getting ahead of myself, but in issue #7, Chloe notes that "...people use that word ["suicidal"] as if it's a hat you decide to put on one day. It isn't." Philip surely already had suicidal tendencies, probably part of what led him to seek out Astrid in the first place. Firstly, I thank Gail Simone for addressing the issue that suicidal ideation is rarely (if ever) spontaneous. It's something that can lay dormant and then become overwhelming so quickly it may appear to be spontaneous, but it isn't. That's an important point that we collectively need to start addressing more clearly in our conversations about mental health.

Secondly, though, it helps us to recognize that Philip wasn't merely a happy-go-lucky ordinary dude who got freaked out one time and overreacted. Astrid misjudged how stable he was and whether he was ready for what she had to show him. It's as simple as that. (Unless she knew how unstable he was and tipped the scales against him deliberately for some reason. Hard to guess along with Astrid and Simone alike!)

The other big revelation of this issue is that the Entities have some kind of aerial abode, which Astrid's recruit Dr. Hagen (introduced in issue #4 and not referenced since) has spent fifteen years trying to locate and find a way to attack. Their solution is a "cloudbuster" battleship allegedly capable of "blow[ing] [their] invisible city out of Heaven." After acquiescing to Astrid's threat, The Surgeon answers Chloe's question of just what he and his ilk are.
"Are we aliens, or demons, is that what you mean, Chloe Pierce? Overlords or angels? We are none of those things. We are inmates."
So, thanks for clearing up that little mystery...!

The issue, and hence the arc, concludes with Chloe and Astrid appearing to make some form of amends and begin to shift toward a more collaborative relationship, but there's certainly still a lot of suspicion.

Astrid isn't the villain of the story, at least not at this point, though her methods are indefensibly shady and violent. She's evolving into a truly complex character, and I think the part that makes her the most commanding is that she's the one who has the most answers...and yet, she clearly doesn't have enough of them, either.

Credits, both issues
Gail Simone - writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - artist
Quinton Winter - colorist
Todd Klein - letterer
Jenny Frison - cover
Rowena Yow - associate editor
Shelly Bond - editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone

04 May 2016

Playlist - Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Newer fans will know that today has become Star Wars Day because the Internet community loves puns ("May the Fourth Be With You"), but older fans will recognize the significance of the subtitle I've given this playlist. The novelization ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster from George Lucas's screenplay to the original movie was published with the branding, "From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker". That was printed on all ten of the novels published during the time of the original trilogy: Foster's own Splinter of the Mind's Eye, Brian F. Daley's Han Solo trilogy, L. Neil Smith's Lando Calrissian trilogy, and the adaptations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. My use of it here is to signify that the scope of this playlist is confined to that specific era.

All music composed by John Williams and performed by London Symphony Orchestra, except where noted.

1. Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology | Composed by Max Steiner

Though the Fox Fanfare will no longer play before Star Wars movies, it was the first music we viewers heard in theaters or on VHS. It felt especially appropriate for this playlist to open with it.

2. "Main Title" from Star Wars
From Star Wars - Original Soundtrack

It may be fashionable these days to go instead with the film version, "Main Title/Blockade Runner", but I have a soft spot for the album version which segues into an abridgment of the end titles fanfare. That's the genius of John Williams: he understands music for film, but he also understands it for the album format. Plus, "Princess Leia's Theme" appears in the middle of this arrangement.

3. "The Desert and the Robot Auction" from Star Wars
From Star Wars - Original Soundtrack

I loved the Super Star Wars video game, particularly because it let me spend uncounted hours zooming around the desert of Tatooine blasting Jawas to Kingdom Come. Contemptuous as I became of those little snots, I've always dug their musical motif. "The Little People Work" is fuller, but "The Desert/Robot Auction" is shorter and perfectly sufficient for the purpose of this playlist. Plus, this piece concludes with the upbeat theme for Luke Skywalker, which I think helps set up the next track nicely.

4. "Lando's Palace" from The Empire Strikes Back
From The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture - The Empire Strikes Back

Williams's Cloud City theme is appropriately airy and inviting, conveying the kind of idealistic society that seemingly exists in that lofty place on Bespin. Seguing directly from Luke's theme at the end of "The Desert/Robot Auction" into this piece feels right. Halfway into the piece, the tone changes as the film scene shifts back to Dagobah, where Luke is troubled by his vision of his friends in danger. A forlorn version of the Force theme underscores his debate with Yoda, and the piece that began so optimistically ends with uncertainty.

5. "The Forest Battle" from Return of the Jedi
From Return of the Jedi - The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Just as John Williams understands music for film as well as album, he also understands it for concert performance, and that's what this piece is. I placed it here because it was time for some action, and I think it represents a decisive turn away from the ending of "Lando's Palace". Also, because this piece incorporates the theme for the Ewoks, it retains a certain levity that felt right at this point.

6. "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" from The Empire Strikes Back
From The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture - The Empire Strikes Back

The levity and triumph of "The Forest Battle" is short lived, snuffed out by what may be the single most iconic composition in the entire Star Wars library. "The Imperial March" dominates the soundscape of this storytelling universe, and it was high time to introduce it in this playlist.

7. "Brother and Sister" from Return of the Jedi
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology

Central to the Star Wars Trilogy is the Skywalker family, the full scope of which is finally revealed in this moment, when Luke tells Leia that not only is Darth Vader his father, but hers, too. I went with "Brother and Sister" instead of the fuller, concert arrangement "Luke and Leia" for a few reasons. For one thing, it's more thematically complex, including reprisals of "Princess Leia's Theme", "The Imperial March", and the love theme for "Han Solo and the Princess" at the end. Also, it's shorter than "Luke and Leia" by a minute or so. This piece wasn't included on the truncated original soundtrack album, and only appears in a ten minute suite on the expanded 1997 & 2004 releases, which is why I selected it from the Anthology box set.

8. "Yoda's Theme" from The Empire Strikes Back
From The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture - The Empire Strikes Back

What makes "Yoda's Theme" so terrific is that it's elegant, but it's also whimsical. I think Yoda has come to occupy a place in our collective consciousness of dignity, which is deserved, but I think we've forgotten just how goofy he was when we first met him. Sure, we're meant to accept that he was just messing with Luke at that point, but there's a certain mischievousness that's conveyed in his theme that's worth remembering, too.

9. "Han Solo and the Princess" from The Empire Strikes Back
From The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture - The Empire Strikes Back

If I have one disappointment, it's that this love theme -- perhaps my single favorite theme in the entire series -- has never had its own concert arrangement. Halfway through, this film track shifts to "The Imperial March" and Darth Vader's conference with The Emperor. It's effective and helps keep that theme central to the musical narrative, at least.

10. "Cantina Band" from Star Wars
From Star Wars - Original Soundtrack

There aren't many places to insert "Cantina Band" where it isn't a conspicuous jump from whatever played before it. I elected to place it here, back-to-back with "Jabba the Hutt", as a sort of interlude in the overall narrative.

11. "Jabba the Hutt" from Return of the Jedi
Performed by The Skywalker Symphony
From John Williams Conducts John Williams - The Star Wars Trilogy

Jabba's theme appears as part of the film cue, "Han Solo Returns (At the Court of Jabba the Hutt)", but I have a strong preference to this concert arrangement from an album Williams recorded with the Skywalker Symphony. The tuba is terrific, and the theme is so fascinating to me that I felt it deserved to be represented all on its own, even if it meant going outside the official soundtrack recordings.

12. "Princess Leia's Theme" from Star Wars
From Star Wars - Original Soundtrack

Sometimes I'm in love with the elegance and romanticism of this piece, and sometimes I wish it was about a minute and a half shorter. In any event, I like the idea of opening "Act II" of this playlist with it. Initially, it doesn't feel like a dramatic leap from "Jabba the Hutt", but as it progresses, it leads us further back to the overarching aesthetics of the soundscape of the Star Wars galaxy.

13. "The Emperor Confronts Luke" from Return of the Jedi
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology

We're back to the central conflict of the Trilogy, now introducing The Emperor's haunting theme. I considered "The Emperor" from the original soundtrack album, which is shorter, but it doesn't feature the choral singing that makes this piece so eerie. This piece was retitled "The Emperor's Throne Room" for the 1997 & 2004 expanded soundtrack releases.

14. "The Asteroid Field" from The Empire Strikes Back
From The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture - The Empire Strikes Back

"The Emperor Confronts Luke" is dark, but it's also a bit sedate. "The Asteroid Field" is still dark -- it's dominated by "The Imperial March", especially early -- but it's also frenetic. Our heroes score a much-needed victory here, celebrated with a triumphant reprisal of "Han Solo and the Princess", but that fades out with some uncertainty...

15. "Final Duel" from Return of the Jedi
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology

Getting our paws on this cue was perhaps the single most compelling reason to own the Anthology box set. It was subsequently included in the 1997 and 2004 expanded soundtrack albums, but there as part of a longer suite. The sweeping strings and solemn choral vocals elevate this from mere fight to something far larger. Our understanding of what is at stake is informed directly by this composition.

16. "Here They Come!" from Star Wars
Performed by The Skywalker Symphony
From John Williams Conducts John Williams - The Star Wars Trilogy

Because "Final Duel" ends with the fanfare that accompanies the Rebel assault on the Death Star, it seemed appropriate for this cue here. This is a concert arrangement of the music that accompanies the dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and TIE Fighters. I favored this version performed by the Skywalker Symphony over the film and soundtrack version, "Ben's Death and TIE Fighter Attack" chiefly because it gets straight into the action. The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi is important, but its musical representation has always felt a bit odd out of context to me.

17. "Darth Vader's Death" from Return of the Jedi
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology

Old timers may recall resorting to buying a re-recorded album by Varujan Kojian and the Utah Symphony Orchestra for their version of this before the Anthology box set finally made the original version available to us. What may be perhaps the most interesting thing about "Darth Vader's Death" is how it repurposes "The Imperial March" into something somber and surprisingly tender.

18. "Ewok Celebration [Film Version from Return of the Jedi]/End Credits [from The Empire Strikes Back]
From Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology

Firstly, "Ewok Celebration" had to be part of the From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker playlist, because its replacement in the Special Edition was such a big deal for fans of that earlier era. This recording is the one from the film, which differs noticeably from the soundtrack album version. That kind of made it feel like the right version to represent the movies, but there were other reasons I went with this track. I felt that the Ewok and "Luke & Leia" themes that were revisited in the Jedi end credits were sufficiently represented elsewhere. The Empire end credits suite includes "The Imperial March", which emerged as probably the most important theme of the trilogy, plus it also gives me one last burst of "Han Solo and the Princess". Lastly, this is just such an anomalous rarity, and I dig including those things in playlists.

19. "Star Wars Main Theme/Cantina Band" [12" Disco Mix]
From Star Wars Main Theme/Cantina Band promo single by Meco

As a sort of "encore", I felt obliged to include this hit disco take on the "Main Title" and "Cantina Band" arranged and performed by Meco. This 7:34 extended version was released for DJ's, and was included in the 1999 CD issue of the original Music Inspired by Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk LP.

20. "Lapti Nek (Jabba's Palace Band) Club Mix" from Return of the Jedi
Vocals by Michelle Gruska | Music by John Williams, Huttese lyric by Annie M. Arbogast
From Special Extended Dance Remix of "Lapti Nek"

"Lapti Nek" was lifted from Return of the Jedi: Special Edition in favor of "Jedi Rocks". But 14 years before it was deemed replaceable, it had at least two single releases. One is where I got this extended version. There's also a 12" single credited to "Urth" featuring "Lapti Nek Overture", which amalgamates "Lapti Nek" and "Ewok Celebration". The vocals on that version were recorded by Joseph Williams, son of John Williams, who also composed the English lyrics.

21. "A Day to Celebrate" from The Star Wars Holiday Special
Vocals by Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
From The Star Wars Vault

To this day, I've never seen The Star Wars Holiday Special, but this recording appears on the first of the two CD's included with the massive Star Wars Vault hardcover book featuring reproductions of all manner of memorabilia. It seemed the right way to close out From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.


01 May 2016

"The Middleman": The Complete Pan-Universal Blog Post

I was first introduced to The Middleman when I found "The Pilot Episode Sanction" free on iTunes in 2008. I downloaded it 10 June that year, but I shamefully admit I never got around to actually watching it until 30 May 2011, when I squeezed it into my comic book/superhero-themed Make-Your-Own Challenge for DVD Talk. I got a kick out of it, and made a mental note to explore the comic book source material and to watch the rest of the show. As with so many interests of mine, it took me a while. Finally, I requested both The Middleman: The Complete Series Indispensability! collected edition and The Middleman: The Complete Series DVD box set through the inter-library loan system. In the span of about a week, I gorged on The Middleman.

The Middleman: The Complete Series Indispensability!
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Pencils & Inks by Les McClaine (Vol. 1 & 2)
Pencils by Les McClaine & Chad Thomas (Vol. 3)
Inks by Les McClaine, Jon Siruno & Chad Thomas (Vol. 3)
Letters by Jim Resnowski & Jon Siruno
Cover Price: $19.95 | 336 pages | 25 July 2008

The comic book material consists of two four-issue mini-series, and a third volume published as a graphic novel equivalent in size and structure to its predecessors. In the first volume (collected as The Trade Paperback Imperative), struggling artist Wendy Watson is recruited into a Men in Black-type organization to assist The Middleman in solving "exotic" problems (such as a computer controlled gorilla mobster). Of all Wendy's personality traits, it's her calm acceptance of such things that best suits her for the work. It's a nice touch, because generally in stories like this, the newcomer has to be convinced that such fantastic things really do exist. Yet after decades of comic books, movies, TV shows and video games, it really does seem increasingly unlikely that in the event of that reality that there wouldn't be a moment of, "Okay, I've read/seen/played stuff like that so why not?"

Throughout the three volumes, Wendy and The Middleman confront a gorilla bumping off mob bosses, become ensnared in a blood feud between martial artist Sensei Ping and a cult of Mexican wrestlers, and a final confrontation with The Middleman's arch-nemesis: Kanimang Kang, leader of the Federated Agents of Tyranny, Betrayal and Oppression's Yoke.

Tone-wise, The Middleman is clearly a kindred spirit of Danger Girl and The Tick. In fact, artist Les McClaine followed his work on this book by moving onto working on The Tick: New Series. His artistic style seems very easily suitable for Ben Edlund's big blue hero and The City in which he operates. Facial expressions are a particularly strong point of McClaine's. Much of the humor from Javier Grillo-Marxuach's tongue-in-cheek dialog is sold by McClaine's artwork. If he goes much lighter, then the serious moments seem too dark. If the art is more detailed and more realistic, then it becomes too stuffy to support the playful script. In short, this is the perfect marriage of text and imagery.

The second volume was supplemented by three different "Legends of the Middleman" short stories, showcasing Middlemen of different eras. It very much reminded me of my beloved Legends of the Dark Knight, particularly "Destiny." Those three stories were each illustrated by a different artist: Josh Howard, Tom Kurzanski and Ryan Cody (with tones by Russ Lowery and Cody), respectively. Of the three, I preferred the first tale, featuring a medieval Middleman tasked with slaying a dragon that keeps killing off warriors from two different kingdoms who wish to go to war with one another. Josh Howard's art is cleaner and easier to follow than is Kurzanski's, and has a lighter feeling to it than Cody's. "Legends of the Middleman" appears in The Complete Series Indispensability! not after the volume 2 content it originally accompanied, but after the third volume.

The Middleman #1 is available free on Comixology.


The Middleman The Complete Series
List Price: $29.98 | 360 minutes | DVD Released 28 July 2009
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Despite only lasting twelve episodes on ABC Family, The Middleman television series actually consists of far more content than its source material. "The Pilot Episode Sanction" is a straight adaptation of the original four-issue mini-series, introducing us as viewers to this milieu. The second series was adapted as the third episode ("The Sino-Mexican Revelation"). Plot points from the third volume appear in different episodes, but it was never outright adapted.

Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales portray The Middleman and Wendy. Keeslar nailed the "aw, shucks" persona of The Middleman, creating a heroic throwback to the kinds of characters we often like to think we've outgrown but later discover we really, secretly take comfort in knowing are still out there somewhere. Morales alternates easily from being a snarky art hipster to the girl next door. Her Wendy is noticeably different from her counterpart on the printed page, but endearing and likable all the same. The chemistry among the main cast is solid, particularly Keeslar and Morales with one another. Both are also terrific to watch with Brit Morgan (whose Lacey Thornfield is significantly more relevant and interesting than the character of the comics).

As a TV series, The Middleman feels at times like the 1966 Batman but mostly it feels a lot like a modern-era USA Network series. In particular, I felt a solid resemblance to Psych (my personal USA fave). Indeed, I have to wonder whether it would have found its proper audience had it been developed for that network instead of the oft-overlooked ABC Family. It's a standard monster-of-the-week show, and some jaded viewers may dismiss it as too familiar. It's a fair criticism, but at times the show was genuinely clever.


The two strongest episodes are probably "The Cursed Tuba Contingency" and the finale, "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome." In the former, The Middleman and Wendy have to find and stop someone from playing a tuba cursed to drown everyone who hears it in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. As it turns out, the villain of the week was born a century ago and actually played the tuba aboard the Titanic. He's cursed with immortality, and hopes to kill everyone with a noted interest in the legend of the tuba all at once so as to stop being the focus of their interest.

In the finale, Wendy is mistakenly sent to an alternate universe straight out of Escape from New York. The connections couldn't be clearer. The alternate Middleman sports shaggy hair, scruff and an eye patch, and one location is twice identified as being on 1997 Plissken Circle (1997 was the year in which the sequel, Escape from L.A., was released). Such allusions and nods are a part of seemingly all geek-centric entertainment, and The Middleman did them as well as any other show on TV.

In one of the final scenes of the episode, The Middleman ponders to Wendy how close he must be to his alternate self. It's a commonly asked question in alternate universe stories, but what I appreciated was Wendy's response. She concedes the point, but argues that it goes both ways; that his alternate self is just as close to being him. It's an optimistic perspective to have, and one that I found resonated with me.

As for the DVD release, there are commentary tracks on four of the twelve episodes (including both the pilot and finale) and the fourth disc contains numerous bonus features from deleted and alternate scenes to a table read of the finale. Shout! Factory did a solid job with this release. My only complaint is that the package art shows Morales in a cat suit. ABC Family apparently insisted on making that the basis of her appearance in the marketing campaign for the show, despite the fact she only appears like that in part of one episode. I can't fault Shout! for using what they were given, but it's definitely another example of how ABC Family failed to really understand what they had or what to do with it.

I think my favorite moment is in the Week 7 episode of the "Javi-cast" in which Javier Grillo-Marxuach asks Hans Beimler to mention some of his other work. Beimler mentions Star Trek: The Next Generation and then Grillo-Marxuach adds, "And of course, one of my favorite shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Apparently, my friend Chad and I aren't the only ones who actually favor DS9 over TNG. That brings the known total to three people!

Also amusing was Brit Morgan's audition footage, and I got a kick out of "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome" table read.

Note: Because I checked out the DVD box set through inter-library loan, I did not have access to the booklet. The promotional image shown below features the episode guide, "Getting to know your...TRUTH BOMB." I cannot comment on the contents of that booklet.
The Long-Delayed Continuation

What you've seen above, I wrote four years ago, because there was one last piece to The Middleman that I wanted to get hold of before concluding this catch-all post. The Middleman show was canceled after a dozen episodes, but was "concluded" with a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed teleplay written by series co-creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach and series co-executive producer, Hans Beimler. Unfortunately, it was already out of print by time I went looking for it. Thankfully, after a successful Kickstarter, the entire Middleman print adventures were put back into print, and thanks to my dedicated and delightful librarian @bookrarian, I was finally able to read it!

The Middleman - Volume Four - The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse
Second edition
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Hans Beimler
Art by Les McClaine & Armando M. Zanker
Cover Price: $25.00 | 72 pages | Reprint published 23 July 2014
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This was the planned season finale of the TV show. Not only does the story at hand tap into the continuity of the show, rather than the original book, but even the visual aesthetic is clearly different. Likenesses aren't necessarily spot-on (perhaps rights issues?), but even if Wendy Watson doesn't quite look like Natalie Morales, she certainly doesn't look like the original Dub Dub, either.

Four years having passed between my last visit to The Middleman universe left me in need of some refreshers, and thankfully Javier Grillo-Marxuach seems to have anticipated that, peppering in expository dialog and editor's notes along the way. Some readers find that kind of thing a bit off-putting, juvenile or pandering. I appreciate it, at least when it's done right, and Grillo-Marxuach does it right.

Most of the elements that I enjoyed in the comics and the show were here, and I was surprised how easily I slipped back into them after all this time. In particular, I had forgotten about Noser, the guitarist who hangs out on the stoop of Wendy's apartment. Jake Smollett played the bit part affably, and I forgot until the character reappeared here how much I dug him.

What did not feel right, though, was the character of The Middleman himself. Not only does he swear here ("dammit!", no less than twice!), but he even slips away at one point to sleep with Wendy's roommate, young photogenic artist Lacey Thornfield! It sets up what is supposed to be a tragic downer of unrequited love never to be realized, but the break in characterization is simply too startling for this reader.

The Middleman - Volume 5 - The Pan-Universal Parental Paradox
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Layouts, Creator-Owned Reality Pencils, and Letters by Les McClaine
Corporate-Owned Reality Pencils and Inks by Armando M. Zanker
Creator-Owned Reality Inks by Terry Blas
Colors by Ryan Hill
Cover Price $25.00 | 106 pages | 30 September 2014
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For one last adventure, Javier Grillo-Marxuach brought both incarnations of his universe together in this crowd-funded graphic novel, in which Comic Book Wendy and TV Show Wendy collide. Unlike the edgier tone of its predecessor, The Pan-Universal Parental Paradox is a natural continuation of both iterations. The story picks up after the last we saw of both universes, with Comic Book Clarence dead and Comic Book Wendy's dad having returned after years of being mysteriously gone.

The relationship dynamics between Comic Book Wendy and Comic Book Wendy's Dad are interesting enough, but even more interesting is the relationship between Comic Book Wendy's Dad and TV Wendy, who aren't technically one another's family. She has questions that he honestly cannot answer. It's a surprisingly touching realization, and I think anyone who has ever tried to help someone make sense of things said or done by another person can identify with that helplessness.

Also, the banter between the two Wendies is terrific, especially when they acknowledge that Comic Book Wendy is a redheaded caucasian and TV Wendy is based on the Hispanic Natalie Morales. And, of course, there aren't just Star Trek jokes; there's even a Deep Space Nine joke! The villain's plot isn't all that interesting, but it's a serviceable enough device for bringing together the two universes and it's fun to watch everyone together. At the very least, I can say it's a more satisfying finale than was The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse.

All in all, I dug The Middleman in both incarnations. Yes, it's shamelessly derivative, which is unfortunately all too common in the Family Guy era of meta-humor, but what makes this universe stand out is that it isn't mean-spirited. It's sarcastic, certainly, but Javier Grillo-Marxuach never tries to make us feel smarter than the people who aren't reading the book. He trusts us to simply enjoy it, and I did.