Fiction Fragments: Michael Burke

Last week, I spoke with Gabriela Vargas about feminism, poetry, and why you should submit your work for publication. And this week, I am happy to welcome comic book aficionado and speculative fiction writer, Michael Burke.

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Michael Burke was born and raised in Massachusetts. His love of books was sparked by finding his father’s stash of pulp hero novels at a young age. The lurid, frenetic art of Frank Frazetta captivated his imagination and he needed to know what was happening to the characters behind those covers.

A Spider-Man comic book purchased for him by his father was his steady companion as he taught himself to read. This effort was not only rewarded by finally discovering what happened to those pulp heroes but also with a lifelong love of the comic book medium.

He co-founded the comic book store, Comicazi in 2000. It has won several Best Of Boston awards and in 2017, won the prestigious Eisner Spirit Of Retail award. Michael is also a licensed pharmacy technician. He has had all manner of jobs in his life ranging from painter to photographer to bouncer to roadie to office work to construction. He still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up but he’s enjoying the ride. Through it all, he has written and told stories. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, the best story he’s ever been a part of.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Michael. Comic books have a reputation of being one of the first forms of fiction children become connected with as readers. Comics have obviously had a positive impact on your life, how have they influenced your writing? What titles would you recommend to kids who are reluctant to pick up a book?

MB: Hi Michelle. Thank you for having me. Comic books have definitely impacted my life in a positive way. My dad saw my interest at a very young age. I had found a shoebox full of his paperbacks. Conan, Tarzan, Executioner, Doc Savage. In the late 60s, lots of those pulp-era characters had been reprinted by publishers. The covers captivated me. He fostered that interest and got me a Spider-Man comic book. He and my mom helped teach me to read when they could but I was ravenous and forged ahead on my own.

That early exposure to comics helped my reading comprehension at an early age and propelled my interest in seeking out all manner of reading material. My formative years were spent with my head buried in books and comics. I’ve loved the comic medium my whole life. I started writing my own stories in third grade; they were very much influenced by the comic characters I was reading. When I was ten-years-old I even created my own superhero complete with origin and costume design and mailed it off to Marvel Comics. I never made a copy of that, darn it! On some level, I feel that I’ve always written with that certain measure of bombast inherent in comics. Well, super-hero comics. As I got older and my tastes expanded, I saw that comics could tell even more stories.

One of the reasons comics are great is that they’re unique in that they have always both influenced and reflected popular culture. I daresay that I would not have read half as many of the books that I have if it weren’t for comics. And, of course, my passion for comics lead me to co-founding a comic book store. We focus our efforts on building and maintaining community and welcoming all with open arms. Some of my favorite recollections of time in the shop are of speaking with new fans of the medium and of talking with kids.

There are scores of comic titles to recommend to kids today. Far more choices than there were for me as a kid. Our shop has a large all-ages section we keep well-stocked. Lots of families come in and kids from pre-school to teenage come in. I’d recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kabuishi; any of the books by Raina Telgemeier (Guts; Smile; Sisters; Drama; Ghosts); Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Bone by Jeff Smith. There are plenty of Star Wars Adventures digests for younger readers because, let’s face it, most kids like Star Wars at some point. There’s always an audience for the standby titles like Disney characters and Archie and Classics Illustrated. There’s really no shortage of comic titles that a kid can get started reading.

GMM: Tell me about your fragment. Who is Ahanu, and where will his journey lead him? Can you share a synopsis of the story without giving away too many spoilers? What inspired this story?

MB: My excerpt is from a novella that I’m writing. It’s called A Parliament of Owls. It’s a sword-and-sorcery tale with horror elements and influenced by Native American folklore. I struck upon the idea last year and wrote it as a short story for my writing group. I got tons of constructive feedback and with that, plus the notes I took, I realized that this was a longer story. I’ve been sitting on it for a bit, letting it simmer in the back of my head, as I worked on other things. But it’s ready to come out now.

The inspiration for the story is very much from my love of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. My dad’s old paperbacks were definitely the fuel for this. Sword-and-sorcery is a subset of fantasy; it has elements of the supernatural present and the tales are often fast-paced, placing the protagonist in a personal struggle. They’re often set in a semi-mythic realm, although there can sometimes be some historical aspects present. The stories do not deal with earth-shattering problems and epic dangers like Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy sagas.

Ahanu Foxcloud is a young man, barely twenty, and an orphan. His mother was a powerful witch with a mysterious past. This fact put her at odds with the elders of her tribe. Ahanu wants to know more about his mother but feels stymied by the village council. He also feels like an outcast among his own people. There may be a reason for that and some of that may be his own insecurities. There’s a young girl in the village, Halyn, that he sees as a sister. She keeps him on an even keel. Ahanu often butts heads with authority and is frustrated by the traditions his people follow when he imagines a larger world beyond his own.

The world makes itself known as even larger than he could have imagined when Halyn and other children go missing. Ahanu scoffs at the explanation given to him for this and sets out on his own to discover what happened. That confrontation will expand his horizons and teach him a thing or two about growing up.

I plan on writing several short stories about Ahanu and his adventures. I’m starting to flesh out the world I want to have him populate and having fun doing so. Looking into more Native American mythology to help influence further adventures has been very interesting and I look forward to adding more of these components. As I move forward with Ahanu, I plan on teasing out facts of his mother’s past and how that ties in with the character that I want him to become.

GMM: You write speculative fiction, but what genre is your favorite to read? Write? Why do you feel drawn to that genre? Is there a genre you enjoy reading but haven’t written in, and why?

MB: Oh gosh, that’s tough. I’ve followed a general pattern through my life. It started with my dad’s Conan and Tarzan books. Those lead me to other books by those authors, of course, but after that, I read other fantasy and adventure books. From there, I moved into science fiction, then horror. Back to fantasy in the nineties when there was no end to those multi-book high fantasy series. Then it was urban fantasy and science fiction. Then mystery and horror. Those were the big beats and I tried other things that struck my fancy at the time. I’d have to say science fiction is probably my favorite to read. It’s a sprawling genre that hits many of my buttons. What I like about science fiction is that element of social commentary. When I was younger and reading works by Ursula K. LeGuin and watching Star Trek reruns and didn’t know the term “social commentary”. I liked thinking about the lesson it put forth.

My favorite genre to write is the first one I was exposed to. I’m having fun with Ahanu’s sword-and-sorcery tale. It just came a lot easier to me than other pieces I’ve written. Maybe because it’s been with me for so long. I love horror and science fiction, too, but I think I struggle a bit more with those genres.

I’ve read a lot of detective/mystery stuff. Parker’s Spenser; the Burke series from Andrew Vacchs; the classic authors of the genre: Chandler, Hammett. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I’m really digging Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill character right now. I like a lot of it but I’ve never attempted to write a mystery. As I travel along my writing path, I’m beginning to find the value in outlining my stories. Typically, I imagine a scene/idea and just write. A friend of mine calls it “discovery writing”. I know there are writers who do it that way and there are writers who outline and there’s probably a number who fall somewhere in between. There’s no right or wrong way to write your tale. But I don’t think I’ve tried my hand at a mystery because I feel that it would require more of an outline style than my discovery method. Perhaps as I settle into a writing method that works best for me, I’ll give a mystery tale a shot one day.

Excerpt from PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A gibbous moon filled the sky, its eerie half-light falling between the canopy of branches above Ahanu’s campsite. The air had only cast off some of the day’s humidity; the night was close and thick. Low sounds echoed throughout the forest as nocturnal creatures stalked. The campfire sputtered low. Ahanu sat with his back to a big stump and gazed into the dying flames, worry gnawing at his gut. The past day filled his mind. Anger and fear continued their hold on him as images of Moki and the elders sneered at him. His mother had always been at odds with Moki and he knew, just knew, that they had it in for him.

Dim remembrances of his long-gone mother replaced the angry visages of the tribal leaders. Feelings, more truly. A sense of comfort. He was so young when she was taken, it was all he could do to keep her face in his memory.

That melancholy flowed into the reason he was out here in the woods. He had to find Halyn. She had been gone too long. And she was little older than he was when he lost his mother. She was as a sister.

Grim thoughts stayed with him as his head lolled. His eyes drifted shut and the fire sparked its last.

An indeterminate time passed. The moon kept its counsel. All was tranquil.

A feminine trill whispered through the darkness. The night fell quiet. Ahanu breathed deeper but did not stir.

Again, that soft sound. Kijiru awoke and snorted, head and tail high.

“Easy, girl,” Ahanu opened his eyes. “What is it?” he clambered to his feet, grabbing his axe from the ground as he rose. He walked to the mare, all the while his amber eyes darted. He whispered reassuringly to the horse but she was uneasy.

The fire had died but the high moon cast more than enough light, albeit the effect through the trees made it appear some manner of spectral plane. The heavy, humid night air leant a certain lethargy to Ahanu’s movements. His head was still fogged with sleep. He stood beside Kijiru, slowly brushing his hand through her brown mane.

A long, low rasp sounded. It sounded very much like a sharp blade being dragged across a stone. Ahanu started, tightening his grip on the axe handle. Kijiru shuffled her feet. He moved from the horse, looking about. That sound worried at the edges of his memory but he could not recall the context. He moved about the site in a slow circle, eyes trained into the dark.

A short, vibratory song called next, almost as if a caged bird were nearby. Ahanu saw nothing. The fine hairs on his arm stood straight and he felt a cold tickle at the base of his neck.

“I bid thee greetings, O man” a soft voice came from the dark. It seemed to come from all directions at once.

Ahanu whipped his head about left and right, trying to ascertain the voice’s origin. “Who goes there?”

“Just a wanderer of the wood. I saw your fire and thought to avail myself of a fellow wayfarer’s kindness,” the voice crooned. It seemed to come from his left.

Ahanu’s thoughts felt sluggish. He stood a moment, determining if this were a dream. He shook cobwebs from his mind and glanced at the ashes of the campfire. It was dead.

“My fire, eh? When was that?”

“Do you not offer hospitality to another traveler, then?” The voice was now behind him.

Ahanu whirled, his knuckles white on his axe handle. “Step forward, woman, if woman, you be, and not some damned forest spirit!”

A slight glimmer of motion rippled in the corner of his eye. He turned to his right and took a step in that direction. Kijiru whinnied nervously. Ahanu’s eyes widened as a face materialized from the dark. Ice-white tresses cascaded in a silvery frame about a beautiful face. Eyes darker than arboreal shadows regarded him coldly. Ahanu stopped, awestruck.

He stared, enrapt, following the bodiless face as it moved about the campsite. He dimly noted that it was odd how the face would sometimes change in height as it moved. Almost as if it were a bird alighting on branches.

“No forest spirit am I, but a woman.” A note of anger sounded deep in her voice. “And you would do well to accord me respect.”

Ahanu retreated a step, superstitious fear driving him back. He considered his next words but held his tongue. The face had not moved. It hovered, ghostly, in the moonlight.

“Well? Boy.” The word dripped from cruel lips.

The tableau held for several moments until Kijiru let loose with a loud snort. Ahanu blinked hard and in a fluid motion, hurled his near-forgotten axe at the apparition.

A horrible hiss sounded and the lovely visage winked out like a blown candle flame. Ahanu heard heavy wings and could swear he glimpsed a dark form take flight. He shook his head in an effort to clear his dazzled vision.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Weirdos Need Love Too

If you’re following along, you know that I’m hoping to write a blog post each day during the month of February. The last time I attempted to do that, I managed to write 21 posts out of 29 days. In order to stick to the theme of fuckable fictional characters, I’ve asked my friends and readers to make suggestions, because while there are plenty of fictional characters out there to write about, I may run out of steam and/or ideas as the month progresses. A few days ago, my friend Brian suggested I write a post about Jughead Jones. Some of you might laugh about that suggestion, but only if you haven’t caught an episode or two of the CW’s teen drama inspired by the Archie comics, “Riverdale.” I binge-watched the first season on Netflix this past summer and came to the conclusion that I was indeed smitten with the young Truman Capote wannabe.

If you haven’t watched “Riverdale,” you should check it out. I like to think of it as the lovechild of “Twin Peaks” and Heathers, that is weirdly reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek, with maybe just a touch of West Side Story. Based on characters from the Archie comic books, “Riverdale” takes a darker look at life in small town America. In case you aren’t sure, the first season is a murder mystery that uncovers a lot of dark secrets among the seemingly perfect population. You’ll recognize all the characters from the comic books: Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Josie and the Pussycats, and of course, Jughead Jones. I never really got into the comic books, but I do remember reading some of them when I was a kid.

I don’t remember the comics being nearly as interesting as the TV show, but in hindsight, the comic was essentially about Archie two-timing Betty and Veronica, unless I’m missing some important plot point. What I do remember beyond that is that Jughead wasn’t very smart and he was primarily interested in eating. So, you can imagine my surprise when Jughead Jones turns out to not be one of the smartest characters, but weirdly attractive.

Weirdos Need Love Too: Jughead Jones

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Archie Andrews is the star of the show, so his story arcs are still pretty important, but this ensemble cast of young actors each has an interesting backstory and together they discover that life is much darker than most of them realized. The death of a popular rich kid turns the whole town upside down and the sins of the parents come to the surface and force their kids to grow up a little faster.

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Jughead has a rough home life. In fact, we quickly learn that he’s homeless. He works as the projectionist at the local drive-in and is also sleeping there, which is sad, but kind of cool given how much he loves classic movies. His parents have split up because his dad is underemployed and has a drinking problem. Plus, it turns out he’s a criminal. When the drive-in closes after being sold for a new development project, Jughead is truly homeless and ends up sleeping in a closet at the high school.

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Jughead’s relationship with his family can best be described as moments of irrational hopefulness that are inevitably ruined by the realities of disappointment. Jughead’s dad is a drunk, a thief, and apparently not a very good husband, because his mom took his younger sister, Jellybean, and left. Jughead and his father share the delusion that if JP Jones would just get his shit together, they called be one big happy family again. But, the truth is that Jughead’s mom and sister aren’t coming back anytime soon, and for some reason, Jughead isn’t welcome to join them in Ohio where they are living with his mom’s grandparents.

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When Archie finds out how bad things are for his friend, he invites him to live with him and Mr. Andrews. Jughead lives with the Andrews for a while and is able to worry less about where he’s going to sleep and find his next meal so he can focus on school, developing stronger friendships, and the book he’s writing about the town and the murder investigation.

Jughead is not only a writer and film buff, but he has a wickedly dark sense of humor and has no tolerance for people’s bullshit. He’s the weird kid, an introvert, sensitive, intelligent, inquisitive, and most people treat him like an outcast because he’s different.

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I’m almost ashamed to say that Jughead Jones brings out my inner cougar. Almost. If I had known Jughead in high school, I’m pretty sure I would have lusted after him. At some point, I would have invited him over to listen to records, watch a movie, possibly smoke a joint, and then make out with him by the light of the lava lamp in my dark bedroom with black shower curtains over the windows. Yeah, I totally would have tried to seduce Jughead if given the opportunity.

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Of course, I may not have had much luck in wooing him, because Jughead’s taste in women seems to be blonde, over-achieving, mentally imbalanced cheerleaders who are actually in love with his best friend. At one point he refers to her as a Hitchcock blonde, and I suddenly wanted to read his manuscript from cover to cover. Still, pretty blonde girls as such a fucking cliche. But hey, who am I to judge? I’ve got the hots for vampires, werewolves, serial killers, and Satan himself. I’m not casting any stones in my glass haunted house of monster fetishes.

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Jughead still seems like an unlikely sex symbol, right? And, I know how inappropriate it is for a woman my age…who is unfortunately single and apparently reaching her peak of sexuality…to be lusting after a character in high school. I get it. My libido doesn’t seem to care, however, and is going to keep on having sexual fantasies about any number of inappropriate  fictional characters. That’s what fantasy is all about, right? Imagining all the naughty things you’d like to do, but not actually going through with them. I’m not hanging out at high school football games ogling the players. I’m not seeking out partners who want to drink my blood. In fact, for the sake of my own peace of mind, I’m currently not seeking out ANY partners. But that’s a post for another day. I’m here to talk about this adorable and tragic character.

Even though the plot focuses on the murder and we spend a lot of time dealing with Archie’s romances, his parents’ impending divorce, and his struggle to define himself as a musician and songwriter, we also spend a lot of time learning about who Jughead is and the struggles he’s going through. He is struggling for acceptance much like Archie, but Jughead isn’t trying to be something he isn’t. He is true to himself even if that means ending up alone.

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His feelings for Betty run deep. When she opened up to him and showed him her own darkness, I don’t think he could help falling for her. But she still has trouble accepting him for who he truly is. He loves her, but also realizes that he can never really be who she thinks she wants. And still, he tells her his true feelings and bravely opens himself up to her.

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He risks a lot by opening himself up to Betty. He loves her and she cares for him too, but she doesn’t completely grasp how importantly loyalty is to him. They don’t come from the same kind of background. Jughead is a survivor. He understands what it means to be a true friend and ally. Because he has seen into the hearts of people and knows there is more darkness than light.

Betty wants to believe that people are good, but Jughead knows that no matter how good people appear on the surface, there are always secrets waiting to reveal themselves. Despite Betty’s own experiences with her friends, family, and neighbors, she still wants to see the best in everyone. But, for some reason, she still wants Jughead to be turn his back on his past. No matter how much she says she loves him, she still wishes he was Archie.

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I’m perfectly fine with Jughead being true to himself. Even if he becomes a member of the South Side Serpents, he’s still a better person than Betty, Veronica, and Archie. At least, he is in my opinion, because he is the only one willing to accept his friends at face value and encourage them to be their true selves. Even when they turn out to have much darker secrets than his own.