Friday, August 30, 2019

Fiction Friday: Matthew Phillion's THE INDESTRUCTIBLES Series

Although I have, over the years, dabbled in reading comics and following along with various comic book characters, I was never really particularly drawn to the super-hero genre specifically. I preferred characters like The Punisher or Conan the Barbarian, or comic book stories that weren't really super-hero focused, at least in the traditional sense, like the PREACHER series, or WATCHMEN (which has super-heroes, but wow, not so super or so heroic).

All that having been said, with the meteoric rise in Young Adult fiction over the last twenty years, especially as it touches on sub-genres like Urban Fantasy, I've seen several authors out there who tie in YA fiction with more traditional super-hero tropes (Percy Jackson kinda feels like this, although the characters are technically Greek demi-gods, but whatever). Again, this really isn't my cup of tea, so for the most part, I've ignored this genre, feeling it's not really something I find interesting.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give Matthew Phillion's THE INDESTRUCTIBLES a shot. I've been social media pen pals with Matt for a few years, and I've read his DUNGEON CRAWLERS novellas (also highly recommended). I knew he was a skilled storyteller, so I took the plunge, and I read Book 1 of his YA supers series.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was is a bit of a slight to Matt, so I will say instead that I was surprised how easy it was for me to slide into the YA superhero genre with this first book. The characters were fun and engaging, and his writing style is clean and evocative, without feeling simplistic or dumbed-down for a younger audience. I have since read books 2 and 3, and I am currently well into book 4. The series currently extends to a fifth book, as well as several associated short stories, and there is a separate two-volume book series that exists in the same world and timeline as the Indestructibles characters.

If you enjoy super-hero fiction, or if you have or know a young adult reader who enjoys this kind of fiction, please go check out Matt's work on Amazon. His books are available in Kindle and paperback formats, and he's also made them available via Kindle Unlimited.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: A Shout-Out to Tabletop Minions

As you get older, you find your hobby priorities changing. You might have more money (might being the operative word here), but you are often more careful on where that leisure/hobby spending goes, because you often have less time and energy than you did when you were younger. I haven't had a chance to play a game of Warhammer 40K or Bolt Action in a couple of years, and while I would enjoy doing so more regularly, I'm still happy to spend my leisure time buying, building, and painting miniatures, not with the goal of creating the most "competitive" army (whatever that even means), but building an army that I like, one that feels right to me.

Along the way, I often turn to YouTube for tips on painting and converting and general gaming/hobby ideas. A couple of months ago, someone recommended I check out a video put out by the Tabletop Minions channel, regarding a way to strip paint off of old / used miniatures. I liked the video and checked out some more of the work on that channel, and it really resonated with me. TM's primary person is a guy who goes by the handle "Atom Smasher", a fellow in his late forties who is extremely relatable if you enjoy miniature gaming as a hobby, but you're not a win-at-all-costs fanatic who is obsessed with extremely competitive games, or a painting snob who shuns anyone who hasn't mastered the arts of wet blending or edge highlighting. For example:

Another recent video that I thought was really pertinent to middle-aged wargame and miniature hobbyists was this one:

Full disclosure, I have a pair of those dorky-looking magnifying glasses, and they work great. I also have a miniature holder, and it makes a huge difference. Another really good video for us filthy "casuals" who keep putting things off:

Anyway, you get the picture. "Uncle Atom" has a lot of great advice, and his videos are very well-done and informative. He comes across as that very helpful older mentor who isn't there to drive you in one particular hobby direction, but instead, offers good advice for people who just don't know what to do or where to turn. If you want some quality tabletop wargaming YouTube content, please check him out and subscribe to his channel.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Media Monday: Death Kiss

A bit of a brief post today, as I'm in what's typically the busiest week of the year at work. If you've been around this blog for any amount of time, you know my fascination with the DEATH WISH series, both the two books written by Brian Garfield, as well as the *five* movies made starring Charles Bronson. And of course, it's no secret that much of my fiction writing is inspired by the notion of the urban vigilante.

So I was definitely curious when the micro-budget crime movie DEATH KISS came onto the scene. Basically, you can treat it as an unauthorized, unofficial follow-up to the Death Wish film franchise, although that is never truly acknowledged. Death Kiss is available on Amazon Prime Video, and you can check out the trailer here:


Just as interesting as the movie (and perhaps for some people, even more so), pulp aficionado Bill Cunningham of Pulp 2.0 Press has written a book that does a great job of breaking down the production and marketing of Death Kiss from a business perspective.  Allow me to quote my review of his book Death Kiss - the Book of the Movie, here:

To preface, I have seen DEATH KISS and read through Cunningham's dissection of the film, and I write this review from the point of view of a novelist and storyteller, as well as someone who went through film school in the late 1990s, when low-budget independent film-making was on the mind of many of my fellow classmates. I am also a huge fan of Brian Garfield's original DEATH WISH novel, as well as the 1974 adaptation by Michael Winner. I've put out articles about vigilante storytelling, and have written a bit of it myself.

I say all this because the idea of an indie project designed specifically to tap into that Garfield/Bronson/Winner-inspired vigilante crime story market was immediately appealing to me. I watched the film DEATH KISS before reading the "Cinexploits!" case study, and while there were portions of the film that I might have criticisms about, I think overall, with the resources available to the director, the overall final product was entertaining - I honestly enjoyed it more than the 2018 remake with Bruce Willis!

And so, having seen the film, I decided to read the DEATH KISS case study. It is an excellent breakdown of the idea behind the film, and how so often in the entertainment industry, the people you know and the connections you make - both "above the line" and below - can make or break the project before it even goes into production. The relationship between Rene Perez and Robert Kovacs - a man with, shall we say, a particular set of skills - allowed the idea of a DEATH WISH-styled independent film to grow from the seed of an idea into a full-bloomed production.

Further, and this is something I especially take to heart as a novelist, Cunningham takes a lot of time to discuss the pragmatic, commercial, *business* of film-making - about making sure that your idea isn't just a good story, but that it is a story you can *sell*, and knowing what markets would be best for your idea, and making sure that you are delivering a product that fits with those markets. Artistic storytelling for the sake of storytelling is a noble concept, but it doesn't pay the rent or the talent. If you are in the *business* of film-making, you must understand first and foremost that your business is commercial in nature, and that you must, above all else, make money from the sale of your product. Period.

Of special note is the breakdown of the ARKOFF Formula. I won't go into the details here, but it is a point-by-point process epitomized by the methodology of Samuel Z. Arkoff, who did great business during the second half of the 20th century producing and distributing commercial theatrical films. I find the ARKOFF Formula worth studying by anyone who has an interest in storytelling designed to - first and foremost - get people to part with their money.

As this review is already fairly lengthy, I will end it by pointing out that the book also includes the DEATH KISS script, as well as a lot of great details about low-budget film production. As part of my day job I regularly interact with faculty and staff that support student film-making, and I have been in many a meeting where people argue for the best film cameras and the best lenses and the most expensive NLE hardware builds and finishing spaces. While more money and resources usually doesn't *hurt*, it often puts people in the mindset that more money is the answer to the practical problems they face during production. However, you don't tell a better story because you don't have the most expensive lens, or because you're only shooting in 1080 vs. 4K. Good stories are still good stories, even if they are produced on non-Hollywood grade production equipment. It is skill, talent, and ingenuity that tells great stories, not the most expensive ARRI rig you can get from a rental house.

If you have an interest in independent film-making, commercial storytelling, or even just the idea of taking a 1970s cult hit and using its gravity to slingshot an idea forty years later, I highly recommend you get your hands on DEATH KISS: The Book of the Movie.
So if you are a fan of low-budget film-making, a fan of vigilante action, or a blend of both, check out both the movie and the book.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Fiction Friday: Paul Bishop Presents Anthologies

Astonishingly, the third post of the week! I'm reserving Fridays for fiction posts, and today's post will be a little shorter than the posts on Monday and Wednesday. I wanted to highlight a series of fiction anthologies being put out by Wolfpack Publishing, and curated/edited by Paul Bishop, a retired LAPD detective and venerable novelist. The first anthology, Pattern of Behavior I read as soon as it was released, and while not every one of the stories was entirely my bag, so to speak, all of them were well-crafted tales from highly-talented authors.

There is a second book in the series out now, Criminal Tendencies, and although I have yet to start reading it, I must humbly mention that I have a story in that volume, one featuring my character Jamie "Hangman" Lynch, the protagonist from my novel SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER. If you liked that novel and want to read some more of the Hangman dealing out some bloody vigilante vengeance, look no further (for now) than Criminal Tendencies.

I do believe there is one more entry forthcoming in Paul's series of crime anthologies, and after that, there is at least one Western anthology on the horizon. All of these are (or will be) available in eBook and trade paperback form, and not only are they priced to move at $0.99 apiece, they are available through Kindle Unlimited as well.

Lastly, I highly encourage anyone interested in crime and mystery fiction to go to Paul's Amazon page and check out the full range of his published works. Paul was one of the authors I connected with early on in my blogging and writing journey, and I am more than happy to promote his publishing ventures whenever and wherever I can.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: The Pure Insanity of Warhammer 40,000

Continuing with my push to deliver more blogging content, I'm dedicating Wednesdays to wargaming and role-playing games. Although in recent years I haven't been able to get in much (or really any) of either tabletop wargaming or pen-and-paper RPG playing, I still count both among my hobbies and interests.

Today I just wanted to highlight the wargame I am most invested in on an emotional level - Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000. For those who don't know what it is - I'll do this REAL QUICK - a bunch of British tabletop miniatures folks had a set of wargaming rules called Warhammer. It had armies of Elves and Dwarfs and guys with swords and pikes, and orcs and goblins, even skeletons and ghouls and "chaos" warriors and monsters. Basically every fantasy trope you can think of circa 1985 or so, thrown into a blender. Warhammer became super popular, and as it grew, they decided to do a version of the game as a sci-fi skirmish game, which they decided to call "Warhammer 40,000".

Just Another Day in the 41st Millennium

The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has changed somewhat in the 30+ years since its inception, but, well, I'll just cut and paste in the quote that appears at the beginning of most of their products:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries The Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor's will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants - and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Yeah, it's like that. This is the kind of science fiction wargame you dream up when you're a young British nerd who subsists on a diet of heavy metal, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, the punk aesthetic, European political chaos, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, the Alien franchise, Hammer horror films, and a thick, heady dose of Generation X nihilism.  The "good guys" in the Warhammer 40K universe are the Imperium of Man, but you quickly realize that in 40K, "good" just means not quite as demonically horrifying as the "bad guys", but still pretty goddamn awful. The Space Marines, genetically modified super-humans in a suit of nigh-invulnerable power armor, might be call "the Emperor's finest", but they're also know as "The Angels of Death", and they'd stomp your skull into paste as soon as look at you if they thought you were a threat.

'Ello Guv'ner!
Even the Imperial Guard, the "good little guys" who were just your normal humans in basic body armor and carrying basic guns - somewhat analogous to regular army guys of today, just with sci-fi trappings - are often portrayed as psychotically violent and xenophobic, or just plain insane. Many of them come from "death worlds" where everything there tries to kill you, and it's basically Rambo with a plasma rifle and a chainsaw sword.

Some of my favorite parts of 40K are when things get delightfully subversive. There are nuns in 40K, but they are sociopathic religious zealots running around in black powered armor with all-white hair (white head covering, black outfit, like a nun's habit), blazing away with guns and flamethrowers, slaying heretics and the "impure". The Space Marine chaplain isn't a kindly older man giving you spiritual guidance...well okay he is, but he's also an eight foot-tall crazed murder machine in coal-black armor with a skull-shaped helmet, smashing people to pieces in the name of the Emperor and driving on the troops with his "inspiring presence". Yeah, it's like that. Even the Librarian is a force to be reckoned with, as "Librarians" are actually Space Marines with psychic powers, who can blow your body apart with their minds, set tanks on fire, and cause all sorts of supernatural havoc.

Yes, this is one of the Good Guys.
If anything, my biggest criticism of 40K in recent years is that they seem to be toning down the darker, more punk-rock elements of 40K in favor of something a little more family-friendly. There are still demons and mutants and heretics, but the Good Guys are a little more Good and the Bad Guys are a little more Bad. While 40K has always bee appealing to teenagers, I think Games Workshop knows that they need to aim for a younger audience, in order to get brand loyalty at an earlier age *and* tap into the "toy money" of the parents, rather than 30- or 40-somethings who have discretionary income, but who can also say "$35 for a single model an inch and a half tall? Ehhh...".

And that's my other big complaint - the cost. New model kits and new pricing structures mean that a playable, "competitive" army can set you back $400 or more if you buy everything at store prices. Sure, hobbies can be expensive, but the nature of wargaming is such that you feel the need to buy the newest, coolest stuff, as the rules and the "meta" changes to give different armies an advantage.

Glorious Old-School '90s Boxed Set Artwork!

But despite these problems, I really like the universe of Warhammer 40,000. It's cruel and violent and cynical and bloody as hell - in fact, it reminds me of that other British dystopian setting, JUDGE DREDD, in a lot of ways - but back in its earlier times, 40K didn't take itself as seriously as it does now, and I think the new, more serious 40K has lost a little something because of that.

Now, pardon me while I go burn some heretics - I mean, search on eBay for an out of production miniature...

Monday, August 19, 2019

Media Monday: War Fever (1969)

Today I'm starting a new push towards regular blogging, and with that, a Monday post every week about some kind of media - film, television, comics, or artwork. Today, I am featuring a film I watched a little while ago on Amazon Prime video, where it is labeled "Salt in the Wound", but the film also has the titles "War Fever", "The Liberators", and its original title in Italian, "Il dito nella piaga", which, according to Google translate (for whatever that's worth) means "The Finger in the Wound".

The plot revolves around Corporal Haskins and Private Greyson, two US Army soldiers who have been accused of crimes (IIRC in both cases, they did commit those crimes), and are sentenced via court martial to death by firing squad. The firing squad detail is led by a shiny new second lieutenant named Sheppard. The two doomed men are driven out to an isolated spot to be executed, but Sheppard gets the directions wrong, and they wind up off the beaten trail. The detail is discovered by a German patrol, and everyone but Haskins, Greyson, and Sheppard is killed. The two convicted men and their executioner flee into the wilderness, armed but ill-equipped, and that's when the movie really begins to pick up.

The dynamic is clear from the beginning. Haskins is a corporal but he's significantly older and more war-weary than Sheppard, who has just come from State-side and has never been in combat before. Greyson is a black man in a white man's army and feels his own bitter resentment towards how he has been treated, and for the first half of the film, he's still in a state of shock, which unfortunately doesn't give the actor much to work with and does a bit of disservice to the character. But Haskins, played by the utterly fantastic Klaus Kinski, sneers and laughs and taunts Sheppard, all the while keeping a Thompson submachine gun pointing Sheppard's way. Haskins doesn't have it in him to kill Sheppard outright, even though he could, and doing so would essentially make him and Greyson free men since there would be no Allied soldier alive who'd know the two doomed men were still living.

When the trio stumble across a small Italian town, there is some rejoicing, as the locals think the Americans are just the lead element in a much larger force sent to "liberate" their town. There are hints of Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King" here, as Haskins soaks up all the glory and warm treatment he can get, playing up his fake role to the hilt, while Sheppard stumbles through the occasion, trying to keep the Italians' expectations realistic, while at the same time, trying to be diplomatic and polite. Greyson, an object of curiosity as the first black man many of the Italians have ever seen, is treated well enough, but it isn't until he befriends a young boy that his character begins to really open up and is given a chance to have significant dialogue and emotion. And of course, there is the extremely cringe-worthy "romance" between Haskins and a young Italiam woman that he relentlessly pursues, in a manner so aggressive that I honestly found myself physically recoiling from the screen at his advances. This is flat-out the worst part of the film.

Of course, inevitably the war comes to the small town, as the Germans have decided it is a good place to defend themselves against an advancing American front. They send an element to capture the town, and soon, Haskins, Greyson, and Sheppard find themselves having to defend the town from the attacking Germans. For a bottom-of -the-budget-barrel film, the combat scenes are actually quite well done, uncompromising in the violence, and while the editing is done in large part to hide the lack of a budget, you can easily follow the action. I won't give away the ending, but let us just say that all sides pay a steep price by the end of the film.

Looks like you can watch the full 97-minute cut of "Salt in the Wound" here at YouTube:

Overall, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. Despite its extremely small budget, including weapon props that are quite obviously non-guns in many scenes, I liked the story of a pair of soldier-criminals who are doing everything they can to avoid the war, but wind up finding themselves fighting for the lives of civilians they barely know. I also enjoyed the dynamic between Sheppard and Haskins, even though much of it was over the top, due in a large part to Kinski's sneering visage. Also, I believe that I read somewhere this film was the inspiration for the original The Inglorious Bastards made in 1978 (*not* the Tarantio movie of a similar name but different spelling), which involves a group of American soldiers who are criminals, being sent on a "suicide mission".