Archive for January, 2014

I had a great time this past weekend at Enigma Bookstore in Astoria, N.Y., at a panel discussion with fellow Codorus Press authors Wayne Lockwood, author of Acid Indigestion Eyes: Collected Essays and Musings on Generation X and Alex Segura, author of Silent City. First off, the bookstore was really cool. They specialize in science fiction, fantasy and mystery. You could just tell by browsing the selection that the owners have a genuine love for — and excellent taste in — the aforementioned genres. It’s the type of bookstore I’d make a roadtrip just to visit. And I really enjoyed sitting on the panel and talking about writing with Wayne and Alex, too. It was funny. We got so engrossed in our talk that somebody had to remind us — hey, you guys might want to sell some books, as long as you’re here.

One element of our discussion that I found particularly interesting was a conversation about how a story comes together. This mainly had to do with fiction. And while “Acid Indigestion Eyes” is nonfiction, Wayne is currently working on a novel so he was able to share some insights as well.

While I’d read and admired “Silent City” (see my review here), Alex and I had never met or discussed the writing process before. So I found it interesting that he also experienced a phenomenon I encountered numerous times when I was writing The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report. It’s the moment when my characters did something I hadn’t expected. And the book took a turn that made me say: “Whoah! Didn’t see THAT coming!” That was kind of unnerving, since I was WRITING the freakin thing! (more…)

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VeronicaThe trailer for the “Veronica Mars” movie is out. And it looks … well, I don’t know how it looks. I’m not going to watch the trailer for fear of seeing a single spoiler. And it’s not like I need to be sold on seeing the movie. Hell, I’d pay a large sum of money just to see a five-minute resolution of the season three cliffhanger, which is where the show wrapped up in 2007.

Soon after I discovered “Veronica Mars” a few years ago — perhaps “had been converted to” is a more accurate term than “discovered” — I was raving about it at a party. A rather sardonic friend of mine asked: “What are you, a 15-year-old girl?”

That’s the kind of misinterpretation the show engendered. For the record, I’m a 47-year-old man, and I’m a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction. (By the way, check out Alex Segura’s “Silent City” if you’re also a fan. For that matter, check out my novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”) As I don’t really follow TV, I was vaguely aware of the show when it was on from the years 2004 to 2007, felt no desire to check it out, and didn’t give it a second thought.

Ironically, I think the ideal viewer of the show is somebody like me, who has an idea that it’s some kind of lightweight teen mystery/soap opera hybrid. Somebody with no natural inclination to watch it, who ends up seeing it anyway through some chain of circumstances. That’s precisely the type of person most in a position to be surprised at first, and then blown away by how clever, darkly funny, edgy, complex and just flat-out freakin good it is. (more…)

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)