Monday, October 13, 2014

To Cuss or Not To Cuss

People who know me, or follow my Facebook or Twitter feeds know that I am a foul mouthed son of a bitch. I was raised in a working middle class blue collar neighborhood in the 1970's. I knew just about every racial epithet and swear word there was by age ten. I learned the rest when I went to college. Every job I have had in my adult life since has been shared with people who casually breathe out expletives roughly every third sentence without thinking about it or caring.

Profanity in books or movies does not throw or shock me in any way. The F-word is so deeply rooted in my vocabulary it's essentially filler. A synonym for "very". Like Smurf. It's an incredibly versatile word. It can be a verb or an adjective. Even a noun. It can be used to convey anger or humor.

One of the more memorable scenes in The Wire was when McNulty and Bunk were looking around a crime scene. The only word of dialogue for the whole scene was a single four letter word, uttered in a various tones to express surprise, suspicion, amusement, dismay, shock, worry, or even just "Hey look here." It was hysterical.

And so, in the crime novel I am working on, I'm up to 48 F bombs and 78 variations of feces. I even drop the dreaded N word. Twice. Two and a half if you count the time someone started to say it and was shot before he could finish it. Earlier drafts have an even higher curse per word count ratio.

I feel compelled to go on a sidebar here, which might put my opinion into context.

I despise political correctness. I loathe the compulsion that society has instilled in me to hesitate to speak freely with every fiber of my being. Especially in fiction, the words are being spoken by characters. When it's something a person would say... say it!

I just saw a great example. The TV series Spenser: Fore Hire finally came out on DVD. It was one of my favorite shows of all time, and a heavy influence on me creatively.

So anyway, there is a scene at the end of the pilot episode where a mob boss is threatening to kill Spenser. More accurately, order his enforcer kill him. At this point, Hawk betrays his employer and refuses to kill Spenser. So the big man turns to another guy in the room with them and orders him to do it. Hawk warns him not to.

Robert Urich (right) as Spenser, Avery Brooks ...At which point the mob boss blurts out, "You don't take orders from this ni**#r!"

I am sure the reaction to this in 1985 was "WOAH!!" If that happened on network TV today, the show and all its sponsors would be subject to death threats.

But... it's exactly what the guy would say. Take a small minded racist asshole, no matter how big time he thinks of himself, get him angry enough and that's what he'd say. To even call the line "unnecessary" is asinine. There is literally no other thing that that character in that situation would say. Not to mention the line was immediately followed by one of Robert Urich and Avery Brook's classic witty exchanges that managed to make a mockery out of said racism and move on with the story without going all social justice warrior on the audience. It reminded me why I loved that show so much.

I wonder if a publisher would allow a white author to write such a scene in 2014. I am braced for the possibility of having to rewrite my own scenes once I finish and get it into an editor or agent's hands, regardless of how accurate the context is, because it might be seen as too provocative. Even though it's not meant to be. It's just meant to be realistic.

It sucks.

But as I am wont to do, I digress...

Despite the fact that frequent use of foul language among, lets say, less refined segments of our population is the only way dialogue sounds natural to my ears... I am also aware that there are touchy feely pantywaists who feel compelled to brand books with 1-star reviews on account of what they feel is excessive language.

Okay, okay. Not everyone who takes exception to so-called "bad" language is that bad. I do not understand where they are coming from. Like at all. But I don't necessarily fault them. I take great exception to the kind of troll who 1-stars a book on those grounds, though. I hate the assumption made in such reviews that the writer is just trying to be provocative or shocking or pretending to be edgy. It's completely believable natural sounding dialogue in the setting of most crime dramas. It's how people speak.

Either way, enough people who pay to be entertained don't like it for whatever reason. Whether I agree with them or not, there are enough of them to make me care.

Thus I am torn.

On one hand, I want to sell books. I want as wide of an audience as I can get. Although it's violent crime fiction, I throw in a couple characters and a number of moments that I think will appeal to female readers, too. Though it seems women are the most sensitive to the language "issue".

And it's not like I feel compelled to force swear words in to seem authentic. Trust me. I am well enough versed in gutter speak that I don't need to fake it. I am always aware of who the speaker is, and the situation they are in. I recognize when swearing is just padding that real people would not actually use in daily conversation just to seem edgy (e.g. True Blood).

That said, I have met women who speak like Debra Morgan in real life (from Dexter, for the few of you might not get the reference -- and if you don't, rent it dammit!).

Example... One scene that made me stop and wonder if I'm going overboard was a greeting between two friends. They come from a world where busting each other's balls is just what good friends do. It's a sign of respect. It means that they like you enough to mess with you and have enough faith in you that you'll take the joke as the spirit it was given.

The response I wrote was: “Man, f*#& you,” he laughed and greeted me with a fist bump.

Sometimes when I hit lines like that, I get all hung up and wonder if I should edit it. I hear the outraged voices of the Oversensitive Class in my mind. I can see the comment threads already.

But ya know what... I'm sorry but if you are offended by lines like that, then I can't imagine you're a fan of crime fiction anyway. Writing any other response sounds completely unnatural to me. It feels fake. Wrong. That right there is a common greeting ritual among guys.

When it fits, it fits. The best argument in favor of profanity in crime fiction was from The Crime Factory blog. The takeaway quote: "Cuss words won’t make a crappy hardboiled story better, but removing them from a great story can destroy it."

But then there's this guy's point of view. No matter how justifiable the use of profanity, a lot of people have some oddly calibrated moral compasses. They won't blink at all the people getting shot in my story, but they'll freak out over allegedly inappropriate language. And those people have the power of 1-star reviews. Or even if they don't exercise such trollish behavior, they will be turned off by a story that they might otherwise like if they didn't have this hangup. I'm still losing audience members.

No-profanityYes, I still dismiss their deeply held personal feelings as a hangup. Because it's weird. I've never understood it and I never will. Sorry.

I guess maybe this is an example of what my buddy Sean Taylor meant by writing for the market vs writing for art. And the circle keeps spinning.

There are times when I will agree profanity is not "needed". In other genres especially, I commonly fall back on sentences like "She swore under her breath" or "He bit out a curse." Or I'll go with the euphemism if it doesn't sound corny. 

But when it is needed because the absence of it would make dialogue so watered down to the point that it sounds wrong... Screw it.

I am sincerely curious what y'all have to say on the subject, too.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writer Says Knock You Out

Okay so... there's this trope of novels and film that's been the topic of discussion lately. Modern readers are getting increasingly savvy to myths of the knockout blow. I'm thinking its mostly due to the rising concern over concussions in boxing and American football, but honestly even before then, it was starting to bug me a little, too.

All of the focus on popular media is on the long term medical effects. But as a writer, I am more interested in the short term immediate effects, so I can create great scenes.

There's two aspects to the debate. One is that it isn't anywhere near as easy to knock someone out as it looks on television. The other is that if you hit a guy so hard that you cause him to lose consciousness, you could potentially kill him.

Well meaning know it alls who want to show the world how much they care about the issue of concussions are quick to glom onto the latter point especially. But they take it too far. To hear them talk, writers should stop knocking characters out entirely. It's akin to trying to kill them. Feh.

On one hand, both points are valid -- to an extent. It isn't as easy to knock a grown man unconscious as TV and movies make it look. And yes, it is potentially lethal, with a high likelihood of long terms effects without medical treatment.

On the other hand, I've seen enough MMA and boxing fights (and more recently researched the subject) to know that it's not really all that hard if you know what you are doing. As always, the truth of the matter is somewhere in the middle.

So as a writer who wants to appeal to modern audiences, you may want to check yourself before using the knockout as a plot device too frivolously. Assuming your goal is to present a believable scenario, you don't want to yank your  audience out of the story.

But it's a convention of action dramas. It's one of those things that most readers will still accept, so long as you make some effort to present it realistically. So don't be too afraid to use it either. I'm a nitpicker from way back, and I'll still do it when the story calls for it.

So amid all the misinformation I've come across from people trying to sound enlightened, here's my 2 cents on the subject.

First let's talk about the mechanics of what's actually happening. If you are simply punching a guy, or clubbing them with a tire iron or a blackjack or something, what you are actually doing is hitting them hard enough to jar their head so suddenly that their brain slams against the inside of their skull. In other words yes, you are giving them a concussion.

So there's a moral component. Kinda. I say kinda because typically the kind of person who would do such a thing isn't thinking in those terms. They are either dumbass criminals who just want to get away, or take someone out without making a lot of noise. Or they just want to stop the bad guy from doing whatever life threatening thing he's doing, but they are either unarmed or not capable of killing.

Still, it's something to consider. IF your character knew that that's what they were doing to their opponent, would they care? Would it cause them to hesitate? Would it cause them to go for a "less violent" approach, if they even have the time or the wherewithal to think of one.

One increasingly popular method is the chokehold. No violent striking, so no chance of a concussion. Depriving the brain of oxygen would definitely do it. But again, if the character is not trained in how to apply it properly, it either will not work... or they could kill the person in the attempt. People HAVE died from attempted chokeholds. It's why the police don't allow them to subdue suspects.

But regardless of the approach, and disregarding long term effects and moral implications, how long will they lose consciousness?

One huge gaff in this era of savvy reading audiences is to have your character remain unconscious for the remainder of any given scene, usually as a way to remove them from some key plot point.

Don't do this. Seriously.

The scientific answer to how long a victim would remain unconscious from a concussion or blood loss is: It depends. There is no hard and fast rule, and no studies have been done for obvious reasons. I can only go by anecdotal evidence from watching fights and what fighters claim.

Most get up within just a few seconds. The average seems to be more like 20-30 seconds. I've heard enough claims of up to a full minute to believe it.

But from what I can tell, if a guy is still out after sixty seconds, he is in need of serious and immediate medical treatment or he could die. There are stories of waking up hours to days later, but every one of them wakes up in a hospital room.

I could not find any reliable reports, but I am pretty sure that the odds are FAR greater of waking up within a minute of getting knocked out than of death. Have that happen to you enough times over the course of many years and you may have trouble speaking clearly or recalling your name on demand, but you'll be alive.

And fighters know this. In real world self defense, free of police regulations, it is a completely valid tactic to try to end a fight quickly by rendering your opponent unconscious. If you are unsure of your odds of winning a stand up fight, and you are in legitimate fear of your life, or driven by whatever fill-in-the-blank life or death dilemma that fuels good pulp dramas, then by all means knock the bastard out.

But how easy is that to accomplish?

Well ironically, hitting someone on the back of the head is the least likely way to knock someone out. At least in the way it's normally portrayed. There's a lot of bone back there. You would have to hit a guy REALLY hard. Hard enough that you'd probably cave in their skull and kill them instead. Chances are you'll just really piss them off.

Where you want to hit is at the base of the skull, where the occipital lobe of the brain is most exposed. Trained fighters are very familiar with that spot. It does not matter how big you are. One solid hit there is lights out. The same ideas above about the length of unconsciousness and risk of long term injury still applies, thus MMA's strict rules against strikes to the back of the head. But it is the preferred method in urban self defense when possible.

The neck is another funny overused trope. The "judo chop" made famous by Captain Kirk and Austin Powers. Beyond the fact that Judo is a grappling and throwing art, hence no "chopping", it looks too silly to be believable because it is. Granted, cutting off the flow of the carotid artery is a completely valid way of rendering someone unconscious. It's been done many times. Accidentally more often than not. You've got to have fairly mad ninja skills to hit that spot with the right force at the right angle on purpose.

The neck muscles are usually too thick when striking the neck from behind or the side, too. It'd hurt like all hell, but it probably won't put them to sleep. You'd have better luck with a strike like that from the front. But that may require more focus than your average street brawler can muster.

Same with the well known "sweet spot" of the jaw. What technically happens there is similar to what I described above. The head whipsaws, but what gets actually gets hit in that scenario is a cluster of nerves below the ear which destroys your equilibrium. You never actually lose consciousness. You are messed up and wish you were pleasantly asleep, but you are aware of your surroundings beyond the deafening throb of blood in your ears. You will very likely stand up inside of ten seconds if determined enough.

Until you take one or two more shots like that.

But a well placed uppercut under the jaw... much more effective if the goal is unconsciousness.

Sidebar: It's always amazed me how infrequently the loser of a fight is described as simply unable to keep his wits about him to get up. A lot of times an opponent could legitimately lose the desire to keep fighting. They are knocked for a loop, but not out. In the famous words of Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

You can accomplish taking an opponent out long enough to escape any number of ways. Knock the wind out of them, gut punches, blows to the kidney or liver. Repeated kicks to the legs work, too, outside of a boxing ring. The ankle can only take so much. Hamstring shots are especially painful.

Another sidebar: The reason fighters often have thick necks is because they work on those muscles specifically to be able to take a punch to the head.

Of course you can always kick 'em in the junk. Again, they probably won't fall unconscious. But you won the fight.

So there you go. Just be aware that a growing portion of today's readers have grown vigilant of this particular trope.

It can still be done, but try not to overdo it. And do your best to avoid judo chops.




Monday, September 29, 2014

Reflecting on Haven Distributors

Some folks in the comics business may remember the name Haven. From February 2008 to November 2011, I made a go at creating an alternative outlet for retailers to order independent comics. And for a little while there, I really thought we were going to make it. Being honest, though, how the company even survived that long remains a mystery. I just refused to say die.

Every now and then someone asks me about it. Some entrepreneurial soul wants to get in the business and comes across my name. They find me on LinkedIn or Facebook and ask if they can talk to me about the experience.

I have not replied to any of them, which I'm sure they take the wrong way. But it's just that it is hard for me to talk about that chapter in my life without sounding a little bitter. Because, well, I am. I have no great wisdom to impart. The business failed.

But since people keep asking...

It's been long enough that I think I can finally talk about this with a clear head. First off, I need to say that I'm not going to get into the idea of whether print is dead, or how much digital sales may or may not be eroding the already frighteningly low percentages I'm about to lay out. I am talking strictly print comics numbers here, which still sell last I heard. ;)

My sincere advice to anyone thinking of trying to start a comics distribution company: Don't.

Now this is the point where the know it alls and the haters pile on. Don't listen to him. What does he know? I did preface this by admitting I'm jaded. But I wouldn't be doing anyone any favors by sugar coating it.

Which is why I add: Don't UNLESS...

1. You have enough liquid capital available up front to maintain a healthy stock level AND cover overhead AND personally live off of for at least a year (if not longer) until the business starts breaking even.

And more importantly...

2. Comics distribution is just part of your business model, not the whole plan.

The first point sounds like common sense. Business 101, right? Well...I know there are people out reading and nodding without really grasping what that entails. During those three and a half years, and most of the year after I walked away, I was poor. I mean dirt fucking half a step above poverty poor.

You sincerely have to ask yourself how much are you willing to lose, and how long are you willing to live below your means to make it work. Don't answer that too quickly. Because the smart thing to do is to not add to your stress by forcing yourself to live off of TV dinners and charity from family members just to get by. Have a business plan and a sound investment strategy.

I entered into this not knowing enough about how to run a business. Which I never would have done, if I didn't have what I thought was a reliable partner who I thought was going to properly fund the operation while I ran the day to day. More on him later. For now, suffice to say, the business did not fail because it's impossible. It was maddening, depressing, and exhausting with far too few moments of feeling accomplished, but I was making it happen. Until the rug got pulled out from under me.

But first I want to talk about the market you think you want to get into. If you get into this business, the three biggest sources of your angst will be the math, the customer base, and the monopoly your competition.

The Math

So okay... Maybe there is some magical business formula that can overcome the completely fubar'd state that the comics market has put itself in and make a profit on the resale of non-Diamond-exclusive independent comics. But if there is, I have no idea what it could be.

It boils down to simple math. You buy comics at 60% off cover price, which you resell to stores at -AT MOST-- 40%. Anything less and they won't order. Most of our stock was 45% off. Some of our highest sellers we had to sell at 50% to compete with the Big D.

So you're talking about a 10-15% markup. That gives you zero wiggle room. On margins that scary skinny, all hope rests on volume. There is no room for error in there. None.

Now consider that independent comics, meaning the combined revenue from publishers below the top 4 of the chart, makes up roughly 18-20% of what comic shops actually buy. That might sound like a decent enough chunk of the pie. Now remove all of the Diamond exclusive publishers, and you're talking maybe 10%. Maybe. So you are seeking to serve a tiny sliver of the industry on a tiny sliver of a margin.

So here's a hard dose of reality.

Remember at that markup, everything is based on volume. Even for Diamond. So given the logistics of wholesale shipping, even large companies have to pay for warehouse space, equipment, and the eight or nine guys that touch a comic from the beginning to the end of the process. So they have to set minimum expectations. They have to know they will sell at least X hundred copies of any given issue. If they look at the art, the story, and the lack of marketing power inherent in small press, and figure that they won't even make their minimum... it makes no sense for them to handle that book.

Keep in mind that if you don't hit a certain minimum yourself, you've lost money on the deal. I know you really want to help the little guy. I did, too. But do the math. You've only got two guys to pay, sure, but you still have to justify the amount of work they do to make that money. If you had the entire comic market at your beck and call, then maybe selling a handful of copies might work out. But you don't. You have a fraction of them. How much shelf space can you afford to set aside for publishers that will only sell 1 copy per quarter? Maybe 2?

Even putting them on consignment becomes iffy. But consignment is great, right? You don't have to pay up front for stock. Heh. Tell me how you feel about that after juggling dozens of suppliers, tracking all those tiny incoming shipments, and sending out consignment checks for $5 each. In the end, it makes no sense for either of you.

I did diversify a little bit by also carrying role playing games. Those did okay with us. But guess who also owns the largest single distributor with exclusive deals with the top publishers in that market as well. The markups are better, but the obstacles I get into below are all firmly in place. Such as...

The Customer Base

Now, also keep in mind that Haven started by acquiring the assets of Cold Cut Comics. We thought we would hit the ground running, based on that name recognition. When we opened, we did so with the foolishly naive expectation that former Cold Cut customers would come flocking as soon as they heard of us.

In our first month, we received exactly 1 order.

One.

For $77.30.

What I would learn is that the direct market was in this bizarre state of apathy. I'd say that getting enough of them to make common sense business choices was like pulling teeth, but dentists have it easy by comparison.

It was baffling. These comic shops were getting reamed for an extra 3% on ordering back issues. They were paying out the nose for shipping. Unless they were among the upper crust of like 10 top money makers in the country, their customer service was for shit. They had next to no selection of independent publishers, which they claimed to support and were paying 40% to get. With my shipping rates and discounts, I was beating Diamond's offer on paper on every front. My service should have been selling itself. But I had to bust my ass like you cannot imagine to get customers. No one wanted to budge.

Okay, to be fair, some were just slow to trust me. Once I convinced them I was for real, they gave me a shot. I met many fantastic people who thought outside the direct market box and truly supported indies. I made a number of great friends who I truly miss. I suspect they miss me, too.

To get the rest, I kept making calls, joined the CBIA, networked with ComicsPro, wore my feet flat on convention floors, and slowly but surely built up a base of customers who ordered steadily enough to alleviate my panic attacks and night terrors.

Comics is a tiny industry with a -- let's say unique blend of personalities. You have to know how to read people and genuinely like working with them, no matter how challenging it may feel sometimes, or you are dead. They all know each other. Even before the interwebs made it easy for them to stay in touch, they have been tight. So I tell you with confidence that the business rode entirely on the personal relationships that I built with my suppliers and with my customers.

But there just weren't enough of them. The vast majority of the market never so much as bothered to log onto our website.

I'd get a whole lot of attaboys and encouragement, but tragically few followed through. No matter how much I reminded them about us, tweaked our offers, made ordering easier, prettied up our website, polished our fancy newsletter... I heard nothing but crickets from 3/4 of the market.

One asshat went so far as to respond to one of my ads by calling that supplier directly. He went out of his way to pay more to ship books across the country than to order from me in the Midwest. It's hard not to take stuff like that personally. When we first met, he sung my praises up and down like he was going to be my biggest supporter. Never placed a single order.

He was actually representative of the subsect of the industry who loudly insisted that comics were not too expensive, Diamond is fantastic! Sales are as healthy as ever! He would blame video games and publishers for market woes, but never admit to even the slightest culpability of retailers. And never blame Diamond. They were beyond reproach. The fact that I couldn't get customers was 100% my fault.

Now.... I had a database file full of happy customers who would disagree with the assertion that I was doing anything wrong. But I blame myself plenty. I made some dumb ass decisions. We all do. That doesn't change the reality of the market, though, which the majority of retailers acknowledge. But some of these guys were so deep in denial it's frightening. I often said that too many store owners have no idea how many customers they DON'T have, because they've been driven away from the market over the course of the last couple decades. I am among them.

But they simply do. Not. Care. The shrinking number of hardcore fanboys still willing to partake in what has become a rich man's niche hobby does not compute. They were still covering their nut. To hell with the rest of ya.

But I digress.

There were some retailers that had impossible demands. They seemed to think that because we did not spring fully grown, Athena-like into the market, we did not matter, so there was no point in wasting time on us.

One guy spelled out the only ordering system that he would accept. Granted, he did propose a very slick and simple method working with Excel... that was not at all simple for a web developer to actually code. No one else had what he wanted. And yet he did not hesitate to order from them. He only came to me when I had a clearance sale on what was supposed to be select titles, but bullied me into giving him Simpsons for half off, too. I caved in the naive hope that he'd become a more regular customer. Like I said... I made my share of boneheaded mistakes along the way.

And then there were the ones who just... I don't know. They struck me as very shrewd business people. They ran great stores with a healthy indie section. They were not of the same mindset as those guys above. They got along with me great when we met, or at least pretended to.

But they never once looked at what we had to offer. They continued to pay more for mediocre to sometimes outright shitty service, and ignored any indies that weren't in the ever shrinking green pages. I can't explain it.

They recognized the problem with The Way It's Always Been Done, but kept the machine going anyway.

Bottom line, remember above when I said you were busting your hump to earn a tiny sliver of publishers revenue? You are also servicing a tiny sliver of the retailer base, too. So that 10% is more like 5%.

Still up for it? What?  What elephant in the room?

Diamond Exclusives

Within our first few weeks of opening, one of Cold Cut's top 3 suppliers, meaning one of Haven's  projected top sellers, went Diamond exclusive. Talk about a bad omen.

I could go on for pages upon pages on how the market came to be in the state that it's in. Depending on my mood, I would blame either the so-called Big 2, retailers, fanboys, or Diamond itself. But in truth its been a gigantic circle jerk for decades. The is no single culprit. And admittedly, there are stores that continue to do very well even in this climate (with indies, too), proving all is not lost.

My fallback phrase from 2008-2011 was "It is what it is." The slice of the comics revenue pie is thin enough when we're talking about anyone other than DC and Marvel. But it kept gettiing thinner and thinner as that giant conglomerate in Maryland would tantalize more and more publishers with empty promises if they just went exclusive. Haven had no prayer. "We" were a three-man operation. And I don't count my business partner in that. He did nothing. It was me, a warehouse guy, and one guy writing up our newsletter and laying out the catalog. That's it.

On one hand, I could not blame the publishers for going exclusive. I get it. I've been in their shoes, too.

When they are also operating on tiny sliver of a margin and finally got strong enough to see a whopping 1.5% of the market to show for it, I can understand how hard it is to say no to any kind of savings and advertising boost they can get.

But that said... every single one of them ultimately regretted signing that deal. Every. Single. One. I even had a meeting with one of their big guns who said as much. They all hate their situation, yet they all lived in literal fear of losing that contract.

This practice has created a monopoly. There. I said it. The SCOTUS stupidly lumped monthly comics sales with the entire book market to make it seem like it's just a tiny segment of a larger market. But that is not reality. You won't be selling to bookstores. The only reason for Diamond to have exclusive contracts with publishers is to stifle competition in the only market that buys monthly comics.

But it is what it is. Unless those larger to mid-size publishers nipping at the big 2's heels collectively give Diamond the finger, it won't change.

So it goes.

But that's still not why the business went under.

In the beginning, when we were seeing single digit orders for the first several months, our primary money maker was order fulfillment. We only had 1 client, but we were getting paid purely for the service of stocking, picking and packing their direct orders from their stock. It was pure profit, with expenses being overhead that I would have had to spend anyway for the wholesale side. So really, operating the web store for that one mid-size publisher is what kept the lights on.

My ultimate goal was to open an online retail outlet, possibly even brick and mortar. When it became obvious that 15% margins for so few stores would never pay the bills, my focus went to developing our own retail storefront.

That would have ruffled many feathers, I know. They would have claimed that my extra 10% on the margin was somehow unfair. But honestly... no. It's not. It's what big box stores do, and they all have their own kinds of expenses to deal with. I would have had to work just as hard to drive traffic for sales as anyone else. And the ones who would have bitched were not ordering from us anyway, and never would, so I didn't care. The smart ones had no objection to a free market competitor

And.. psst... let me let you in on a dirty little "secret". Diamond sells direct, too.

So why didn't we get there?

Remember I mentioned I had a partner? Yeah.... well. I called him partner because that was the pretense when we started. It was more accurate to describe the relationship as indentured servitude.

I won't bore you with the details of the drama. Suffice to say, his philosophy of how to properly fund a business operation is idiotic. To say he had me on a shoestring budget would be understating matters. If I spelled out how he forced me to operate, you wouldn't believe me. I realized we were doomed pretty quickly. His idiotic business practices were compounded with major personality differences that I thought I could deal with, but couldn't. As a result, too much of my time was spent trying to find ways to get out.

I came close to escaping four times.

One blew up in my face, and it was completely my fault. I handled a situation very badly and sent an unfortunately worded email to the guy who I'd been working with for months to come up with a plan to buy Scrooge out. In my defense all I can say is that I was beyond strung out. The amount of money I was forced to live on was criminal. Still, I take full responsibility for not being able to keep my shit together.

Though in retrospect, I kinda think I dodged a bullet with them. I cannot confidently say I'd have been any better off.

The second and the third both fell apart because the third party who was interested in bailing me out lost their own funding. The economy was not fun at the time.

With one of those options, we were going to supplement the wholesale business with print on demand. That was the opportunity I was most excited about. But when the expansion money they had planned disappeared, I was back to square one. No one's fault. Just life.

The fourth... sigh.  The fourth could very well have been the turning point. I had worked out a deal with another company to move to a much more affordable Midwest location and integrate with their retail model. Scrooge would not have had to add another dime of investment capital. It would have delivered everything we were striving for and kept us in business. We'd have had an extra revenue stream which would have grown the wholesale distribution side to everyone's benefit.

But when I pitched it to Scrooge, he interpreted the offer as "They are just trying to get our inventory for free". To which I finally just said fuck it. I had run out of time.

Haven had been working out of space that he'd set aside in the warehouse of his "real" business. But that business was moving. So he was about to either move the operation clear to the south side of Chicago (which would have destroyed me with the commute unless I moved down there) or he would have been willing to rent a place (that the business flat out could not afford). I had no choice but to throw in the towel.

He seriously chose closing the doors and eating a massive business loss over trusting me to keep things going free of his control so that I could buy him out.

We had a clearance sale. After that, I offered to follow up with the retailers who still owed us money knowing they would pay based on the trust I'd personally built with them, but only if I made a personal plea. Otherwise why would they? But he refused to give me the list of accounts, and blamed me when they didn't reply to his rudely worded collection letters. So of course he ended up screwing our suppliers (and me personally) with the excuse that no one paid.

And, to be candid, even if they had paid up I doubt he would have settled with those suppliers anyway.

As it turns out, our top supplier was just about to announce they were going Diamond exclusive. That would have been a kick in the nuts. But with the new infrastructure and retail options that I would have had, I think I could have pulled through.

We'll never know.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Hits All The Marks

So this is a bit overdue, but my initial kneejerk reaction to the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer was wrong. Dead wrong. So wrong I am embarrassed by what I said. But I'll own up to it.

Guardians was absolutely flipping awesome. A rip-roaring action adventure that at no point took itself too seriously.

It was fun without ever getting campy. It had a kind of real world sense of humor about it without ever getting silly or riding on gags. It was epic and fantastic, yet felt completely grounded where it needed to be.

It captured the magic of the space opera genre like very few have managed to do. Most of all, this flick had swagger.

Everything James Gunn and company did flew in the face of Conventional Hollywood Wisdom. You know, the thinking that repeatedly condemns big budget science fiction with too many aliens that doesn't have the words "Star Wars" stamped on it as a disaster waiting to happen, but ignore the simple fact that the movie they were bemoaning was humorless trash.

Firefly fans keep comparing it to that. Maybe. What I saw were shades of Star Wars original trilogy with healthy doses of Farscape.
From Left to Right: Aeryn, Rygel, Zhaan, John, Dargo. ;)

Very healthy doses of Farscape. The most frequently recurring jokes involve misunderstood idioms and pop culture references. It's about a guy from Earth who gets caught up with a crew full of criminals and saves the galaxy from a militant maniac chasing after a cosmically powerful weapon.

I mean... come on.

Don't get me wrong. I am the last person to dismiss this brilliant movie as a ripoff. But great minds clearly think alike. I've said it before, I wear my inspiration on my sleeve, too.

Every character was memorable, from the feature cast to the more prominent supporting characters to the villains. Though I do wish the standouts like Nebula and The Collector had a little bit more screen time, looking at it from a plot and pacing perspective, they were in it exactly the right amount of time.

But damn Karen Gillan was great. Maybe Dr. Who fans were not surprised, but the rest of us were all like, whoa who's this chick? I am declaring this her breakout role. Just watch.

So many scenes were solid gold. Rocket had the biggest laugh lines, naturally, but it didn't ride on the jokes alone. It was chock full of emotional moments amid a ton of fast paced action, set to the backdrop of classic pop music that you cannot help but groove to.

I sincerely can't think of a turkey moment I'd want to forget or need to ignore to get into the story. For example, I love Yondu as depicted in the comics. So on paper, you'd think I would hate the redneck pirate with the crazy arrow played by Michael Rooker. I didn't. He was such a great character I found myself not caring about the change.

Ironically, this one was one of the biggest departures from the comics by Marvel Studios to date overall. So given my tradition of preaching adherence to source material as the golden ticket to success, you'd think I'd have problems. But I don't. I'd even go so far as to say that these characters in this movie were all more interesting than they are in the comics. Especially Drax.

Like the X-Men franchise, this movie proved that so long as you adhere to the spirit of the original, you can change details up to your heart's content. Keep what works. Stay true to the core of what fans relate to. Change what doesn't fit in a real world live action setting, and the themes of your story.

Yondu the stoic warrior would not have worked in this film at all. But having a guy who looked like him with a similar weapon gimmick was a great homage IMO.



Now I've got to update my ranking for best superhero movies of all time. (Even though it was a space opera, it had more than enough superhero elements to qualify, beyond simply being a Marvel movie).

Gotta think about that one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Writing Kick-Ass Female Characters


I hesitate to say "strong female characters" because I hear that term is becoming taboo. I guess the new sin is that women in action adventure stories are depicted ONLY as "strong", which is in itself a sexist caricature. So the phrase has become a cliche among feminists.

Sigh. We can't win.

Thankfully, this doesn't stop me from writing them. Though it does make the task more interesting. Because up to a point, the criticism is valid. There are examples of two-dimensional female characters out there who either appear to be the SFC, but turn out to be wimpy, neurotic damsels in waiting.

Then there's the other kind. The ones who are Strong... and... And Strong... and stuff.

Not mine.

Don't believe me? Go check out my new Pro Se Press Single Shot, Codename Orchid for your Kindle (also available from from Smashwords). Costs just a buck, and you can read it in about the time it'd take you to watch a movie, which fits the cinematic experience I go for.

What's it about, you ask? First we meet Orchid, a rogue spy without a country, breaking into an enemy camp in Afghanistan. Through flashbacks we meet Regina Cross. She isn't quite living the American dream yet, but she's getting there. Her life was finally starting to look normal. Until she's attacked by a Russian assassin, rescued by a man she's never met, and learns that she's a deprogrammed sleeper agent.

It's received two 5-star reviews so far, both of which made references to the JJ Abrams show Alias. Because, well yeah. I wear my inspirations on my sleeve.

If you've visited this blog before, you know that I have always been a fan of the SFC archetype. And I love that there are so many of them making it into mainstream entertainment lately.

I list among my top favorite characters in books and comics names like April Rose (Mack Bolan novels), Catti-Brie, Mara Jade, Natasha Romanoff, Barbara Gordon, Helena Bertinelli, Karrin Murphy, Rachel Morgan, Mercy Thompson...

And Wonder Woman. On that note, allow me a quick tangent.

WTF is wrong with you Zack Snyder?

I will admit that on one level, I love this costume design. It's as good of  a modern interpretation of Amazon armor as I think you can get. The depiction of Diana as a "warrior princess" dates back to the 80's at least, (yes, before Xena and before Kingdom Come) so it fits. And Gal Gadot looks awesome in it.

But why are you so afraid of color? Why is everything you create so joyless? It's bad enough that you willfully ignored the entire point of what Superman is supposed to be. Now you are hellbent on destroying the most iconic female character in comics.

What is wrong with THIS??

Dear readers, and hopefully future fans, if you need to know one thing about my stories is that they are fun. Even my eventually-to-be-published violent crime drama/revenge story/crime thriller has healthy doses of real-world humor thrown in.

I simply do not see the world in such dark hues of black and gray and brown as those who have infested the creative mindset of DCE. The last thing we need in this dreary world is even more doom and gloom in what is meant to be escapist entertainment.

I mean, I'm one of the few crazy people who actually liked Sucker Punch, but come ON. I thought that your much improved ending to Watchman was a sign that your creative vision wasn't as bleak and cynical as the Nolans and Goyers of the world. I'm sorry I was wrong. Lighten the fuck up, Snyder. Please.

Anyway...

I have more adventures planned for Orchid, but they won't happen without your support. If you like to read more legitimately strong female characters with depth and humanity, if you enjoy fast paced action adventure of the spy genre, then this could be the start of your new favorite series.

Buy it for a dollar at Amazon and Smashwords.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

So much to say about Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Beware MAJOR SPOILERS. What follows are the reactions of a life long fan of the character to the movie, and to the social media commentary I've come across this week.

First let me summarize my feelings about this film. SQUEEEE!!!!!

Loved it. No quibbles of plot shortcuts. No nitpicks. As flawless of a story as one can get. I dare say it's the best Marvel Studios movie thus far. I accept their apology for torturing me with Iron Man 3. 

I want to go in time to 1990, to talk to that despondent young man who'd just been forced to watch the direct to video Captain America movie piece of shit, and tell him, "It's okay. Just wait. It'll be okay."

I know you've read enough gushing praise to this film by now. It might be hipper to find things to complain about, but sorry. I really can't. It was everything I could have wanted out of Captain America movie.

Specific points where I marked out the most were 1. Arnim Zola and 2. The Falcon.

Though I should perhaps add, seeing Captain America himself come to life on the big screen. Even though we already got that in First Avenger, it does not get old. I fully admit to sitting there in the theater, grinning like some goofy little kid during the opening scenes of Cap clearing the deck of that ship like a boss, and whuppin' Batroc's ass.

I have always gravitated towards the "non-powered" superhero. The guy with the confidence to charge into impossible odds and the very real chance of death and say, "Bring it!" They have always been more exciting to imagine in action. The fight and chase scenes actually managed to live up to my wildest dreams.

Quick tangent... Marvel Studios has been blessed to have a generation of actors who were born to play their roles. Robert Downy Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Chris Evans have all been inspired casting. I was thrilled to see Black Widow continue to get a big spotlight. I'm really looking forward to her feature film.

So anyway, first geekgasm moment... the big reveal. I can't claim to have been a big fan of Arnim Zola from the comics specifically. Though again, speaking of inspired casting, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Toby Jones in the role. Some may say that his performance was over the top. But that's exactly what the role called for. He was spot on. Another shining example of how Marvel Studios succeeds because they show such love for their source material. No matter how "silly" something might appear to modern audiences, they make it work.

Toby Jones as Arnim Zola as depicted in the 20...What had me staring wide eyed at the screen with that goofy grin back on my face, though, was the plot reveal being delivered in such classic Bond comic book villain fashion. The line in particular that got me was the bit about how Hydra was formed because they believed that people could not be trusted with their own freedom. But WWII taught them that they could not take it by force. So they devised a way to get society to give up their freedom willingly.

That whole scene was brilliant on so many levels. It presented Zola in a way that looked cool even to this often-jaded silver-age-bashing modern day fan. The plan itself made for an intriguing problem for Cap to face -- namely having to fight SHIELD (and by extension his own country). And even if you take all of the trappings of the superhero genre out of the mix, it sent a message that resonated with anyone who has followed any news about loss of privacy, especially the NSA scandal. I remember reading one article where the writers said that the Snowden thing happened during filming. Talk about life imitating art.

This was a serious comic book story for grownups. And it was being presented in a way that lost none of what comic book fans loved about the series as kids.

Cap's reaction to the news was beautiful, too. Black Widow said something to him about how he's being pretty chipper for a guy who just found out he died for nothing. That's not how he saw it. There was no angsting. No hand wringing.  He knows who the enemy is. Now let's fight it.

It was the polar opposite of anything Nolan or Goyer would have come up with.

Longer tangent... As I'm sure you know, the Hydra plot twist directly hooked into the last episode of Agents of SHIELD. This lead to some interesting thoughts on the whole concept of "spoilers".

Personally, I was completely surprised by the Hydra reveal. Maybe that makes me an idiot. Sue me. But I doubt I am alone. The unwashed masses who have never set foot in a comic store, I guarantee did not see it coming either. So I know that had I watched that episode of AoS first without seeing the movie yet, I would have been supremely pissed. I can't believe ABC did that. It's bad enough they showed so much footage of the movie a couple weeks back that they spoon fed the entire Winter Soldier back story to us. Again, I feel sorry for those who did not read Ed Brubaker's legendary run on the comic, and were told the Winter Soldier's identity flat out. That much was not a spoiler for us fans. But still. Not cool.

And so when I read some comments about how some folks thought the events of the show were not all that spoilery, I call bullshit. Some even went so far as to say that the entire concept of spoilers is silly. Hindsight is definitely 20/20. But I find it hysterical how people act like the plot was so predictable anyway. Bullshit. It wasn't. You just like looking smarter than everyone else.

Every commercial gave away more about the Winter Soldier side of the plot. And about the general theme of loss of freedom. Something bad happened that crashed a helicarrier. That's all we were told. I did not see one remotely subtle hint about Hydra in any of those trailers. I would sincerely rank this plot twist up there with the likes of Fight Club and The Usual Suspects. It was beautifully executed, and the viewing experience would have been lessened by knowing it was coming.

I loved this movie not just for Cap. Not just for seeing a favorite comic book come to life. The story had an insanely tight plot, great dialogue, great chemistry between characters, and shitloads of incredible action. And even for a political thriller with such intense themes, it never stopped being FUN.

Which leads me to my other geekgasm moment. The commercials gave us a nice glimpse of The Falcon in flight, but seeing the full extended sequence of him dodging missiles and fighting bad guys... OMFG. If only they could have put a hint of red somewhere in his "costume" it would have been perfect. But it was gorgeous. Looking forward to seeing more of him in Cap 3: The Winter Solder Part II.

I am also so looking forward to May, 2016, when Cap 3 opens on the same weekend as the Superman / Batman film. Which I doubt I can bring myself to see after Man of Steel slapped me in the face.

The box office results in two years and one month will tell me if there is hope for comic book fandom. In one corner... Truth, Justice, and the American Way. In the other corner... Superman. We will see superheroism and excitement clash with cynicism and disaster porn. Please world, don't let me down.
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