2001, a redeye flight aboard a 737 from Minneapolis. Tilden is three. His mother – just the two of them traveling, where his father is he doesn't know nor will he for the next thirty years – wears a yellow blouse and sips an unspecified cocktail. The pressure inside the cabin amplifies her tension, always there but far worse in moments she can't control. She talks incessantly of how 'close' the air is, a mantra out of Tennessee Williams. Periodically she pulls a packaged wipe from her handbag, rips is open and lets the tearstrip flutter to the floor, then carefully removes and unfolds the wipe, ritually drawing it across the forehead and cheeks, then stroking it down from her lower palms along her wrists, first the left then, switching the wipe to her left hand like a magician palming a coin, the right. It smells of rubbing alcohol and eucalyptus. The ritual will be repeated nineteen years later with a straightrazor inherited from Tilden's great-grandfather and last used during the Korean War. She stuffs the dried-up wipe back in its packaging and stuffs it deep into the magazine pocket on the back of the seat in front of her, out of sight. Tilden, in the window seat, empties a little bag of airline pretzels onto an unfolded napkin on his meal tray and carefully eats the pretzels beginning with the unbroken ones. He would rather have peanuts, but the airline has banned them to keep peanut dust out of the recirculated air. While pretzels are stiff and taste like sawdust, he savors the saltiness. If his mother would tolerate it, he'd lick the salt off and push the pretzels from sight the way she disposes of her wipes, behavior she'd call disgusting. Glancing out the window, he sees only the suggestion of mountains against the vaguest hint of light. The plane banks, angling left as its left wing dips noticeably. He's afraid they've lost control and the plane will crash, though at that instant he's more afraid of his mother, and says nothing.
The wing rises. The plane rises, passing over the mountains just inland from the ocean, beginning the short cruise toward LAX. Abruptly, the mountains give way to the San Fernando Valley, a universe of lights spreading apparently to infinity, broken only by another band of low, light-dotted mountains before another, broader universe of lights opens up. It's the most beautiful thing he will ever see.
In the moment, Tilden consciously notes none of this; it will only come together when he's once again in night sky over Los Angeles, and then it will be impossible to say what happened and what details he has filled in to set the scene. But he doesn't try to say.
Even without the moon, he could make out where the distant Santa Monica shore gave way to the Pacific, and, far beyond, lights from the floating fishermen's communities that had sprung up to mine what was left of the fishing beds not destroyed when oil spills overran the beaches. There were also inland lights, here and there, mostly the flicker of occasional campfires. Squatters, he guessed, and scavengers hunting the few treasures left in the city in the evacuation after fuel ran out and the desert came back. Cars were not among them. Dipping low, he saw a vast, stagnant parade of automobiles arbitrarily decorating the streets, status symbols like Volvos and Mustangs as useless now as forty year old Volkswagons.
Wanting to know what the Valley looked like now, Tilden piloted the glider toward the deforested hills. Flying at a tangent to the winds, he crested the mountains and angled toward the unlit vestigial city below. The Santa Anas roared up with unexpected violence, battering and tipping the light plane. Tilden held the rudder firmly, but could do nothing to right the glider's downward spiral.
The Mexican shook Tilden awake. Tilden, eyes tortured by the sudden sunlight, guessed they were roughly the same age. "A nasty fall," the Mexican said without an accent.
Tilden's voice cracked as he stupidly noted, "You're American," his words dissolving in a sandpaper spasm of pain. The man didn't seem to have heard him. Tilden's head throbbed, and he touched his fingertips to a large bandage pasted to his forehead. To his surprise it was plastic. He noted as he sat up that one leg was locked in a makeshift brace that kept his foot straight and his knee unbent. It was difficult to move.
"Broken," the man said. "You're lucky that was the worst of it. Are you with the government?"
Tilden grinned, shook his head. "Not many are, these days. Where's my glider?"
"We're burning it," the man said. Seeing Tilden's horror, he explained, "Wood is fuel. You wouldn't have been able to put it back together anyway. Why are you here?"
He tried to think of an answer. Another memory:
Western Kansas. He and his son ride a blue '81 Civic hatchback toward Denver, and maybe work. The car barely works, but its gas usage makes it valuable, worth his condominium in trade. Even so, what they have may not be enough. Gasoline is $18.93 a gallon, when it can be got at all. Tilden has heard legends of gas pirates, local farmboys trying to keep their tractors running, jacking drivers on the road for fuel and supplies. Killing them. But nothing moves on the freeway today but them. A low haze of smoke or dust the color of grapefruit juice hovers across the foothills far ahead, as the sun begins to drop. Charlie, his son, in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, cradles a pump-action shotgun, finger never far from the trigger. They don't speak, haven't really spoken in four months. Charlie is eighteen, slightly overweight. He left a girl behind and isn't happy about it, but he isn't upset either. He turns on the radio, twists the dial until status coalesces into vague words, a country music station out of Wichita. Minute news. A processed voice oscillates, something about food riots in Massachusetts, the army taking over Florida. It crackles and vanishes into static.
Charlie tries for another station, finds none, switches off the radio. He sits quietly for a long time. What he says when he talks comes as no surprise: "Dad, I'm joining the Army when we get to Denver." Believing war will teach him something about himself. Tilden grunts without answering. War is something countries do, but there is no country anymore. Gone with the oil. Tilden stares at the citrus horizon and keeps driving, for as long as the car will go.
The man knew the look in Tilden's eyes, and waved away the question. "Rest here," he said. "No one will bother you. I send someone to check on you tomorrow." He started for the door.
The man nodded. "Garcia." Then he was gone, like everything else in Tilden's life.
From his view of the old 101 freeway, Tilden guessed the single level ranch house was in Tarzana. It had been looted, stripped, discarded remnants of old lives scattered and further defiled by animals. For three days, he lay mostly sleeping on a waterstained carpet, nursing the dry bread rust-flavored water Garcia had left for him. When the water was gone, he dragged the bucket to the kitchen, bracing against the wall to keep pressure off his injured leg. The tap painfully coughed out a few more drops. In the cul-de-sac one night, a feral cat loudly fought a coyote and lost.
On the fourth day, a woman named Angelina, riding up on horseback, came by to feed him and check his brace. The corn pudding, repugnant to look at, was sweetened with pulverized strawberries and melons that produced an expectedly sensual flavor. He was not surprised to learn she was Garcia's daughter.
"Where did you fly in from?" she asked as he ate, baffled when he replied Colorado and wondering how he had crossed the hot zones left after systems failures blew up several nuclear plants, obliterating large chunks of the West while winds, grown fiercer as the climate changed since the end of the last century, scattered fallout across huge swatches of the mountain west. The disaster was mitigated only by the relatively small population of affected areas, and amplified when nuclear waste shipped for burial in Nevada spilled in southern Utah, creating another zone. He had flown over them, unconcerned with exposure.
Asked why her family stayed in evacuated Los Angeles, Angelina smiled bitterly. "I was in Texas," she said. "This was better." Tilden needed no more explanation. Merging with Oklahoma when other states started eyeing their oil, Texas once again seceded from the Union to become an OPEC nation. As bled-out wells dried up, religious fervor gripped Texas as they sought a path back to God's bounty, a path littered mainly with atheists, Jews and Catholics.
"I heard a minister talking about how the Rapture had already come, and we who were left were sinners damned to hell. People took this to mean they were free to do anything, because they couldn't be any more damned. It was time to get out," Angelina said.
"My son might be in Texas," he said. "He's in the army.
"Alaska, maybe. I hear the government's not interested in Texas anymore." Following Texas' lead, Alaska had also seceded, dumping environmental restrictions and opening their vast oil fields to the highest bidders. "They're smart up there, though. They're paying soldiers to desert instead of fight, since the Army doesn't have money to pay them."
Tilden took that as small comfort. Maybe Charlie would somehow live, though he never expected to see him again.
For two months, she came by daily, sometimes joined or replaced by her younger brother Michael. Tilden found himself longing for her when she wasn't there. He knew better than to mention it. Hunger, not love, and alone in the dark his perfect vision of her would have to be enough.
"You don't remember what it was like," Tilden said one day after Michael made a joke about "the old world."
"I do," Michael said. "My grandfather told me. They knew this was coming. How could they not know? Hell, when he was a kid they knew the oil would run out, but it was more fun to say it wouldn't." He said it blandly, without anger or sympathy. Tilden said nothing. Another memory, more recent than the others:
Tilden flies in the glider, cutting south along the west edge of the Rockies. He nibbles jerky, a scarf protecting face against the ice razor wind. It's midday. Flying like that, a lone speck against infinite blue sky, he feels spiritual, gone. Thought is irrelevant. He hopes it's what death is like. The Colorado River, once an inland ocean but brought to a trickle by decades of drought, cuts through the land, a time-carved arrow pointing him toward Southern California. There's the Grand Canyon, and on its southern bank he sees people, the first he has seen since fleeing the starvation in powerless Denver. Dozens lined up, overlooking the cliff. Jolting over the edge as automatic weapons stutter in the hands of other men. Circling, Tilden sees bodies, variously decomposing, littering the canyon wall, hundreds of them. The equivalent of pigeon droppings. No one on the ground looks up. He flies past unnoticed. At river's end in the dry marsh that was once Lake Mead, he turns southwest to trace the highway toward his journey's end. On the west side of the lake, he passes over refugee camps created to relocate Southern California's citizens. Millions of them. Refugees pile onto an old coal-driven steam train. The tracks lead east, to the promise of a new life, but Tilden has already seen where they end. There is no new life. The country has no room for them.
"What are you doing for power?" he asked Michael.
The boy spoke of windmills his father and uncle put up to generate electricity. They worried about storage and cables, both made with plastics the death of oil made impossible to replace.
"Have they considered solar power?" Tilden said.
"Solar panels use plastic," Michael said.
"Are you happy here?" Tilden asked Angelina one day.
She shrugged. "I'm alive." Her family was slowly reclaiming the Valley, tearing down buildings and letting the weeds grow to feed the cattle they had brought in. Garcia intended to turn the city back to ranch land, with orange groves planted in one section. Already self-sustaining, with enough surplus to trade for fruit and vegetables in Oxnard up the coast, he saw a day when they would supply whatever new civilization might rise up here.
"I think I could be happy here," Tilden said.
"No," she said. "You couldn't."
His leg healed and once again strong, four months after he arrived, Tilden had already begun to climb the Santa Monicas, hiking up Beverly Glen Boulevard, when Angelina rode up behind him. No explanations were necessary. He hadn't expected to see her again, and knew by her bittersweet smile she hadn't been looking for him.
"Where are you going?" she said.
"South, I think. Thank you."
Angelina smiled and said, "Good luck," then trotted her horse back down toward Ventura Boulevard.
He climbed the rest of the day, turning west on Mulholland at the crest and continuing to the bridge over the 405. North and south, what now seemed like two lost worlds stretched out before him. Lands of dreams, and beyond them a land once built on dreams and dedicated to them, dreams not so much lost as thrown away.
On the other hand, there was the fourth season return of SIX FEET UNDER (HBO, Sundays 9P), a tedious rehash of dull characters now terminally stuck in neutral. There isn't one character on this morose show who hasn't been ruined. There's no point in even trying to discuss it. It's over. They can keep trying to patch up the corpse, but you can smell the formaldehyde. It was always the weakest HBO drama to begin with, and now I've watched my last episode.
Because of vague thematic similarities to THE LAST HEROES, someone recommend John Ridley's novel THOSE WHO WALK IN DARKNESS (Warner Books; $24.95). It's among the first of the slowly growing new genre of post-superhero prose novels, and intersects with THE LAST HEROES mainly on the question of how ordinary humans can battle superpowered adversaries. Ridley, a novelist, screenwriter and director, keeps things interesting when imitating police procedurals and focusing on the hazards faced by special (and usually short-lived) police teams trained to take on "metanormals" in the years after a superfight levels half of San Francisco along with 600,000 citizens and the government responds with a post-9/11 style war on them. There's almost a political satire here, but Ridley never quite gets there, hinging the book instead on metahating cop heroine and amateur munitions wizard Soledad O'Roark, whose homicidal bigotry, for lack of a better term, is never adequately justified. It's an interesting try, energetically written, and there's a very amusing legal scene in the middle that's almost worth the price of admission by itself, but by the novel's final third, Ridley flounders, cheating his way through the big final battle and setting up a surprise ending that blind men could see coming 150 pages earlier. A valiant effort that doesn't quite get there, and comics fans may be amused at the echoes of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, MARSHAL LAW and other post-superhero comics.
Besides signing for iBooks, I'll also be doing time at the We Want Your Autograph booth, where Comic World News founder Caleb Gerard and John "J.G." Roshell are mounting an effort to get comics fans to vote (like for president, not the Eisner Awards). Expect lots of other "guest stars" besides me at the booth, and if you're not signed up to exercise your voting rights, this'll be your big chance to change that.
I wish I could talk about some of the things going on right now. Maybe next week. Meanwhile, Moonstone Books has officially announced the PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE graphic novel I'm doing with Tom Mandrake. It's the hardest of hard boiled detective novels, with the world's oldest and crankiest detective out to undermine the case that made his reputation. I realize I've got a skewed perspective, but so far it's a hoot.
Finished the new ROBOCOP mini for Avatar a couple weeks ago, plus a Robo-short story, though I'm not sure what the venue is. Some dark and vivid projects on the horizon over there for the end of this week. In the meantime:
Speaking of Avatar, I'm told they're resoliciting the entire run of MY FLESH IS COOL this month. If you missed it the first time out, take this chance to bug your retailer for it. Among a slew of hot reviews, my favorites were from COMICS INTERNATIONAL, which had this to say:
MY FLESH IS COOL 1
by Grant and Fiumara
An experimental drug enables Evan Knox to work as a highly paid assassin and troublemaker who can take over other people's bodies. He can get to anyone, anywhere, without detection. He does whatever he wants, and uses other people in a ruthlessly instrumental way. The catch is this: what if everyone could get their hands on the drug? Both script and art are adult and gritty. This comic is cool. 8 [of 10]
MY FLESH IS COOL 2
Evan Knox comes round to discover his worst fears have been realised. The drug 'go' is being sold on the street, and society is crumbling across America. Steven Grant's story takes a bold leap here: from a 'cool' thriller with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of taking over other people's bodies, we've moved on to the nightmare scenario where the hero's powers are no longer unique. What was gritty is now apocalyptic. 8
MY FLESH IS COOL 3
This excellent miniseries concludes in the same vein of nudity and violence established in parts one and two, with the outcome decided by a competition to see who's the most ruthless son of a bitch. Even given the desperate and grotesque situation readers have seen unfold, the final episode still holds some shocks and surprises. 8
Do I really have to tell you to order it? (Sorry about the hardcore hype, but if I don't do it, who's going to?)
As I mentioned last week, IBooks will be publishing the complete EDGE sometime this summer, while DC's including my CATWOMAN story in an upcoming trade collection due out around the time of the Halle Berry CATWOMAN movie. Keep your eyes open when you read PREVIEWS.
While you're at it, order:
DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung
Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.
MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier
Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.
BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano
Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.
BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar
Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.
PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty
Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he's out takes an unexpected turn.
HATED AND FEARED: Best Of X-MEN UNLIMITED: trade paperback from Marvel Comics collecting a number of short X-Men stories, including two by me: a "Blob" story with art by Sean Phillips, and a "Lockheed The Dragon" story drawn by Paul Smith.
GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson
Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.
FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp
Science fiction action. The most faithful adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller's vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.
I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don't forget that if you can't find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import. Lately I've been getting a lot of e-mails from people wanting to know what address to send review copies to. If you continue reading down to the bottom of the column, it's right there.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.