Short Fiction: “The Last Aquarian”

At night, the Turbo Fish Cannery became a monolithic wall of shadow. Only a few pinpoints of light on the roof of Processing Facility No. 1 gave away the team’s presence. Ping! The quiet sound of waves gently lapping in the bay was interrupted by Aki’s cell phone. With an apologetic gesture to his fellow Aquarian watchers, he took the call. “Sweetheart! Is something wrong?” His voice always sounded urgent at a low whisper; but did his heart beat faster in anticipation of the evening’s duties or in excitement over hearing from his fiancée?

Sachiko spoke from the other end: “The news reported a sighting, up the coastline near the Canadian border. Are you sure you’re in the right place?”

“The border? That’s miles away.” Aki looked nervously at the huddled watchers; most of them had their attention on the still-dark bay, but Campbell was looking at him expectantly. For a moment, doubt gnawed at him, but he shook it off. “No, it must be something else. My charts haven’t been wrong yet. He’ll be here.”

“But the news said–”

“We’re monitoring the news here,” he lied and immediately regretted the deception. “They’re wrong. Don’t worry–”

An agitated murmur from the watchers drew his attention to the bay; the water was beginning to foam and churn with activity. Distantly, a bell rang as a buoy was rocked by the waves: something was moving through the water.

“Something’s happening. I have to go, dear.”

“Stay safe, Aki. I love y–” Aki ended the call and turned his attention to the churning waters of the bay and the printout unscrolled in front of him. Red, blue and green lines zig-zagged up and down like an EKG readout against black hash-marks keyed to time and location. Relief and pride mingled within him: right on time.

The hushed excitement gave way to a collective gasp as the waves surged forward into the inlet, the whitecaps standing out against the dark water. The surface split as a scaly, reptilian form emerged: first the vane-like dorsal plates, then the spiraling horns that crowned a massive, leonine head, then the towering, erect body: the giant beast code-named Regulus. It roared to announce itself, a thunder like the cry of a prehistoric bird with the resonance of a deep gong that could be heard for miles.

The team sprang into action; as always, Aki’s most serious contribution was made before the beast’s arrival, predicting its path and most likely point of emergence. Other members of the team consulted laptops and tablets and spoke into wireless headsets, turning on klieg lights around the cannery’s power lines. The whir of helicopter blades in the distance preceded the burst of flares, guiding Regulus toward them. The beast slowly but surely changed course, paddling until it reached the shallow part of the bay and its feet made contact with the sandy bottom. Then it lurched forward, displacing mountainous waves before it.

At that moment, the door to the interior stairwell opened and an imposing figure emerged: Mosha, Turbo’s Chief of Security. After a few abrupt words from Mosha, Campbell began shutting down the operation. “Mister Turbo desires to shift the focus of his involvement with Project Aquarius,” Mosha said, an explanation that explained nothing.

“But the power lines–” Aki said, still not understanding. After his predictive work, was the beast now simply going to be let go?

“That’s not your concern,” Mosha said with finality.

At Campbell’s instructions, the lights were turned off and the sound of helicopters faded into the distance; no more flares were lit. In the moonlit shadows of the bay, the Aquarian beast Regulus lost interest in the suddenly dark cannery and made his way back to the open sea.
“I still don’t understand why you’re not out there,” Sachiko said to Aki as they stood on a balcony overlooking the city. It was a good vantage point to observe the convergence of Regulus and Antares; it was an unseasonably warm, sunny day, one of the few the city would have. Only a few wispy clouds floated in the sky.

“I thought you didn’t like me being in the field,” Aki said, scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars. “We’re safer up here, and I can be with you while we wait.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Sachiko said, squirming. “Of course I like being able to watch with you, but I know how important tracking the Aquarian beasts is to you.”

“Craig is tracking today’s convergence,” Aki said. “He is completely capable.” He continued searching the horizon, looking for telltale signs of activity. It was partly professional interest–he now tracked the Aquarian beasts as part of Roman Turbo’s private operation–but he wouldn’t have missed it anyway.

Sachiko gently lowered the binoculars from Aki’s eyes and turned him toward her. “I hope you haven’t given up tracking in the field for my sake,” she said seriously, looking into his eyes.

“Huh? No, of course not.” He turned back to the view over the city. “Mister Turbo has given me a very good opportunity to be on the ground floor of something new he is building, and I have to take that seriously. Besides,” he added absently, “if everything works out we won’t have to depend on the Aquarian beasts for much longer.”

There they were: Antares was the first to break the surface of the water, near the public beach. The area had been cordoned off. It seemed unfair to block the beach on one of the city’s rare sunny days, but crowds had turned out anyway to watch the spectacle, and as the great four-legged beast trundled forward, the mass of humanity pressed against the barricades to get a good look. The Aquarian beasts were beloved, and their arrival often resulted in impromptu holidays like this: schools and offices were closed, and public safety crews were called into action to control the crowds and help channel the enormous visitors.

“Hmm?” Aki asked, staring at the spiky, domed carapace that made Antares resemble a moving fortification. “Did you say something?”

“I said, why wouldn’t we want to depend on the Aquarian beasts?” Sachiko sounded petulant.

Aki lowered the binoculars again and forced himself to give her his full attention. “I know it is difficult to understand,” he said. He had to remind himself that Sachiko was a civilian. She didn’t see like he did how complex the beasts’ migration patterns were, and how much the economies of the Western Seaboard–the entire Pacific, in fact–had been reshaped around their presence. “Mister Turbo says that the Aquarian beasts won’t be around forever. He thinks we’ve become soft, unable to do things for ourselves. The new project is designed to put humanity back in the driver’s seat.” He caught a glimpse of movement: Regulus emerged and joined Antares in an open space that had been cleared for renewal. A stockpile of industrial runoff sealed in drums sat clustered in the center; beyond that, nothing but weedy vacant lots and expanses of cracked pavement stretched before the two beasts.

Regulus made landfall and saw Antares, already gorging himself on the drums of waste: the beast’s powerful metabolism would convert the toxic chemicals into safe organic compounds. Regulus, approaching, roared in greeting and stood rampant. Antares, finally noticing the new arrival, roared in return and nosed half of the drums toward Regulus. While the Aquarian beasts shared the bounty, workmen rushed into the open area to prepare for the next phase of the convergence.

“I’ve heard what Turbo says. It sounds as if he wants to get rid of the Aquarian beasts because he can’t exploit them himself.”

Aki only half-heard her. He was riveted to the spectacle of Regulus dragging his tail across the open space, guided by workmen who looked like hardhat-wearing ants by comparison: Regulus’s tail left an enormous furrow in the dirt behind him, which would become a new subway tunnel. Meanwhile, Antares dug into the ground, making holes that would become the foundations of skyscrapers. With his plow-like nose Antares pushed the loose soil into embankments, and the hollow conical scales he shed would later be turned into hip coffee shops and independent bookstores. An entire neighborhood would spring up after this convergence.

“An entire city shut down,” Aki said. “Mister Turbo’s earth-moving equipment could do this work in half the time, and with half the manpower it takes to steer these creatures.”

Sachiko put her arms around Aki, who continued watching. “But what would the city do for power?” she said. “Look, Regulus is about to charge the batteries.” Regulus had solar power stored in his belly, which was covered with plates of a translucent, crystalline substance. The crystals glowed from inside, giving the impression that Regulus’s scaly hide was but the rocky rind covering the outside of a geode. Regulus approached the heavy-duty power lines that led to the city’s storage batteries: as the crystals made contact with the lines, stored-up power flooded through them. Regulus appeared to have absorbed even more solar energy than usual during his equatorial season; this would provide electricity to the city for at least the rest of the quarter.

“Just think what Turbo Power and Light could do if they were able to synthesize the material Regulus’s crystals are made from!” Aki said. “Then we could control that power, instead of those mindless animals!”

Sachiko raised an eyebrow and relaxed her grip on Aki. “You used to love the Aquarians. . . . I don’t think I like the influence Roman Turbo is having on you.” She was looking at him in a way she never had before.

Aki laughed lightly. “You’re so sentimental, Sachiko. You should listen to the engineers on my new team; it would really open your eyes.”
While Aki and the rest of the project team stood on the platform in the shadow of their colossal creation, waiting for the ceremony to begin, Aki couldn’t help but wonder if Sachiko was watching, wherever she was. The last few weeks had been such a whirlwind that he had hardly had time to think about her, or to go over their last few conversations in his mind to figure out what had gone wrong. Maybe that was the problem. There was a new woman in his life, at whose feet he stood: two hundred-odd feet of steel and chrome, as beautiful and hardened as an Ayn Rand heroine, and she commanded all of his time and attention.

The crowd began to grow restless; the field on the edge of town that formed the staging area had filled with curious onlookers since early that morning, when the silver and gold colossus had first appeared there. For the moment she was cloaked by banners hung from cranes as tall as she was: on one, a stylized picture of Antares devoured the word JOBS; on the other, Regulus trampled the word FREEDOM.

At zero hour, the PA switched from warm-up music to the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen . . . you know him from Turbo Fisheries, the Turbo Financial Network, and the Turbo Museum of Modern Art . . . author of Turbo: The Book . . . a man of the people . . . please welcome . . . Rrrroman Turrrbo!”

The man himself emerged from between the banners, flanked by Mosha and the rest of his security detail. He approached the microphone like an old friend and began speaking off the cuff as if inviting each and every member of the crowd into his confidence. “Thank you, friends, for coming out today,” he began after the cheering and applause had died down. “If we’re lucky the rain’ll hold off a little while longer, but y’know, if we do get a storm, I think you’ll find this little lady–” he jerked his thumb backward to indicate the two-hundred-ton figure that loomed over them–“makes one hell of an umbrella, you know what I mean?”

Chuckling at his own joke, he continued. “You know, when we announced our intentions, a lot of people said it couldn’t be done. A two hundred-foot-tall robot just wasn’t practical, they said. Well, you know Roman Turbo has never stopped at what was practical, and after hand-picking the best people in their fields–” he extended an arm to the mechanical and electrical engineers, computer programmers, and weapons specialists that made up Aki’s team–“we made it happen. No more will we have to schedule our lives around the whims of the Aquarian beasts, cleaning up after them, letting them run our lives. No! Now we can stand up to them. They push us around? We can push back! Ladies and gentlemen . . . I give you . . . MECHANDROMEDA!”

The banners parted like curtains. Spotlights switched on, turning the already-shiny surface of the machine to mirror brightness. Mechandromeda stood so tall that even those in the back of the crowd had to crane their necks to see her in her entirety; she had the sleek curves of a Ferrari, the greaves and breastplate of a Valkyrie, and the coppery, immobile face of Frédéric Bartholdi’s mother. “This new Statue of Liberty,” Turbo said, “will strike the first blow to free us from our complacent dependence on the monsters from the sea.”

Cheers erupted from the crowd; Aki smiled. He was working on the tracking side, but it had still been satisfying to be part of such a large undertaking, and to see the titanic machine gradually take shape before making her public debut. Turbo continued describing the machine’s features in admiring terms: “Mechandromeda is a fully remote-operated defense platform: we can pilot her without putting human lives in danger, and she has state-of-the-art onboard artificial intelligence to maximize efficiency in her movement, or if communications are cut off. She’s so smart she can practically drive herself!”

Aki’s mind drifted as Turbo began describing Mechandromeda’s considerable arsenal–he knew all about the technical specs, having sat through many meetings and presentations going over those details–and he found himself fingering the ring that he still carried in his pocket since Sachiko had returned it to him. Without even being conscious of it, his mind returned to the day he had given it to her.

Spica, another of the Aquarian beasts, had emerged off the coast that day, and Aki had (correctly) predicted that it would remain in place for several days. A gigantic crustacean-like creature, Spica spent all of its time with its back humped above the surface of the water, allowing an ecosystem to form, like a floating island. During the time it had drifted offshore, shedding coral-like scales from its underside that would become the basis of new reef growth, people from the city had visited its back and enjoyed the scenery and pleasures of a tropical island. Aki and Sachiko had climbed the “mountain” that had formed around its main dorsal vent and savored the bananas, pineapples, and other tropical fruit that grew in the verdant soil atop Spica’s shell. As the sun set, casting a golden light over flowers that could never have survived the Northwestern weather all year round, Aki had given Sachiko the ring and asked her to marry him. It was the happiest day of his life.

Until now, that is. He let go of the ring and clenched his fist, shutting out the memory: you can’t live on dreams and pineapples forever, he told himself. Now he was part of something bigger than himself: this was real. He had a purpose, one that would serve all of humanity.

“So you can see,” Turbo finished, “that the next Aquarian beast to breach our borders is going to be in for a surprise!” The crowd, stirred by his anti-Aquarian rhetoric, roared its approval. “In fact, I’m told that one is due to emerge any time. Would you all like to see this gal take care of some business?” The invitation had the desired effect as the gathered throng erupted again.

Without being referred to specifically, Aki felt the thrill of being at the center of the action: it was he who had, in his own way, set the schedule for Mechandromeda’s completion and unveiling. Tracking the Aquarian beasts in their circuitous migrations around the globe, he had predicted that the beast code-named Aldebaran would make landfall this day, most likely in the late afternoon. Moving swiftly to the tracking station next to the stage, he saw that his prediction was about to be confirmed: on a screen displaying a map of the coastline, a blinking light several miles offshore indicated the arrival of something big. It had to be Aldebaran, and it would be there soon.
From his vantage point in front of a bank of monitors, Aki and the rest of the team observed Aldebaran emerge from the sea and crawl into the area where Regulus and Antares had converged months before. Aldebaran resembled a giant slug, its back dotted with innumerable quills, each tipped by a single luminous globe. As it slowly slid forward, it left behind trails of gray slime that quickly hardened into streets and sidewalks. To mark its territory, it plucked its quills with tendril-like pseudopods that lined the perimeter of its vast footprint, and planted them at intervals alongside the trails, where they would become street lights.

“Gentlemen, there is your target,” Turbo said to Mechandromeda’s operators, a pair of technicians in a similar booth next to Aki’s. “You may proceed when ready.”

With practiced control, the techs directed Mechandromeda forward. The huge robot stepped forward into a cleared corridor, to the accompanying oohs and ahs of the people. The ground shook under her tread. When she reached the perimeter of the cleared area, she paused. A synthesized voice, feminine and mellifluous, projected from onboard speakers and was relayed through the PA system for the benefit of the crowd: “Attention Aldebaran. Return to the ocean at once. You are no longer welcome here.”

Aldebaran gave no sign that it understood or even heard the robot’s command. “All right,” Turbo told the operators, “give ‘im a nudge.”

“Shall we use the missiles, sir?”

“Let’s start with the repulsors. They need a good field test.”

The operators nodded and relayed their instructions through their bank of controls. Mechandromeda raised one arm, palm out, in the universal “halt” symbol. And then . . . nothing happened.

“Well?” Roman Turbo folded his arms impatiently. Mechandromeda stood completely still. Meanwhile, Aldebaran continued planting lights along the streets it left behind.

“We’re trying, sir,” one of the operators said, repeatedly tapping the touch-sensitive screens. “She’s not responding.”

“The onboard A.I. is drawing a lot of power,” the other tech said. “She’s locked us out!”

“Well, get back in there. We can’t let her go rogue!”

The synthesized voice spoke through the PA system again. “Mister Turbo?”

Surprised to hear himself addressed by name by the giant robot, Turbo stepped forward and spoke into a microphone. “Er, yes? This is Turbo.”

Her voice still projected to the entire crowd, Mechandromeda said, “Is this really necessary?”

Gobsmacked, Turbo covered the microphone with his hand and said, “She’s been hacked!” Controlling himself, he spoke into the microphone, “What do you mean, ‘necessary’?”

Mechandromeda lowered her arm. “I have calculated that non-violent solutions are 99% more likely to result in optimal results. Shall I stand down in order to minimize loss of life and property?”

Turbo was speechless. It was starting to sink in that the machine was talking back to him. The operators continued to press buttons and mess with the controls, to no avail. Finally, Turbo sputtered, “Stand down!? No, I want you to blast that sucker!”

Another pause. Aldebaran, oblivious to the drama surrounding its presence, began to slink back toward the ocean. One of the techs threw up his hands in exasperation. “It’s not outside interference. The A.I. has taken complete control. We’re totally locked out.”

Mechandromeda hadn’t taken another step. She seemed to be examining herself, for the first time aware of her own nature. She held her golden hands in front of the multi-spectrum camera sensors that were her eyes. “My maintenance history indicates that I was built at great expense, and with many irregular cost overruns,” she observed.

Shut off the PA!” Turbo hissed to his technicians, already scrambling to do something in the face of this rebellion. “Uh, only the best for you, baby,” he said into the microphone.

“My positronic brain is available to calculate a more rational budget,” Mechandromeda continued. “The resulting efficiencies could be directed to improving the wages and working conditions of your employees.”

“Now you listen to me, missy–I built you!” Turbo shouted into the microphone. “Get that PA off!” Turbo bellowed to the flustered techs, “and get her under control!” The crowd began to melt away, muttering, bored and unsatisfied. They were starting to slip away from Turbo’s control.

Mechandromeda continued, oblivious to the tantrum Roman Turbo was throwing in the control room. “According to my calculations, the steel in my construction could have been used to add a light rail component to already-existing public transportation infrastructure. . . . And have you considered the benefits of raising the minimum wage? I would like to discuss the possibility of switching to a single-payer healthcare system. . . .”

Aki sat at his screen, watching the blip that represented Aldebaran moving farther and farther away, long after Roman Turbo had given up trying to coerce or reason with his defiant creation, long after the crowds had left, and long into the night, as Mechandromeda continued exploring aloud the implications of her sudden political awakening.
“She is beautiful, in her own way,” Sachiko admitted. She and Aki stood on the same balcony from which they had once watched the convergence of Regulus and Antares. Now Mechandromeda stood on the beach, gently stroking Regulus’s neck and scratching behind his ears with her metal fingers. The sun was beginning to set, adding a reddish hue to the robot’s brilliant golden skin and casting long shadows over the city. Beyond them stood the skeletons of new skyscrapers, built by Mechandromeda with the cooperation of human crews.

Aki only shook his head and smiled. He wasn’t watching the two giants on the beach; he stared into Sachiko’s deep brown eyes instead, and saw in them everything he wanted. Now that he no longer worked for Roman Turbo, he didn’t know what the future would bring, but he knew whom he wanted to spend it with.

“Do you think he’ll ever come back?” Sachiko said as they both turned to watch the great reptilian beast head back out to sea. The Aquarians had made fewer and fewer visits in recent months, and Aki had extrapolated the data as far out as he could.

“No . . . at least not in our lifetimes,” he said. Mechandromeda stood, as she had since her arrival, looking out to sea and watching with them. “I’ll miss the Aquarians,” he admitted, “but I have hope.” The sun dipped below the horizon as the last of Regulus’s dorsal plates slid under the surface of the water. “The city has a new guardian now.”

Review: Shin Godzilla


By now it is commonplace to observe that apocalypse figures so largely in Japanese science fiction because Japan is literally a post-apocalyptic society: the many scenes of civilians evacuating their homes or running from disasters in Japanese cinema are drawn from cultural memory, and frequently add pathos and potency to premises that might seem silly if the focus wasn’t kept so clearly on the people they affect. Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence), the first of a new series starring the venerable monster, keeps the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki front and center, along with echoes of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, it’s not quite as somber as Gareth Edwards’ American Godzilla of 2014, but it’s a serious film: there is none of the kid-friendly pro-wrestling action of the Showa series or the overstuffed craziness of the last Japanese Godzilla, 2004’s Final Wars. The only friendly-yet-sinister aliens in Shin Godzilla are the Americans who promise military aid when Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo, but with strings attached; and will their proposed solution be worse than Godzilla himself?

Shin Godzilla‘s tone is dry, sometimes documentary-like, complete with captions identifying speaking characters (almost entirely professionals: politicians, scientists, military, and first responders) and found footage. The approach is fitting for the story, which centers on an aspiring pol named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who fights against both the sclerotic bureaucracy of Japanese government (so concerned with adhering to protocol and passing the buck that little gets done, especially early on) and the machinations of the American and other international forces (whose interest in Godzilla includes the scientific knowledge to be discovered in his unique biology, as well as the economic and military leverage they can exert over Japan).

Yaguchi, young and headstrong, assembles a team of “lone wolves” from all disciplines to stop Godzilla, and their work as a team of equals is an obvious contrast to the hidebound cabinet surrounding the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi). Numerous montages of Yaguchi’s team in action borrow the language of low-angle shots, quick cuts, and wicked guitar riffs seen in commercials for businesses that sell “solutions.” The film is thus essentially a procedural, following a combination of political, military, and scientific campaigns, part The War Room and part Apollo 13. The older generation of politicians is represented as well-meaning but too set in their ways to effect much change, and change is what is needed: to stop Godzilla, and to solve the larger problem of Japan’s cultural and economic stagnation. The Americans (including a Japanese-American aide played by Satomi Ishihara) are not portrayed as harshly as, say, the Americans in Joon Ho Bong’s brilliant Korean monster movie The Host, but the Japanese view of America as perpetually occupying or dominating Japan is made quite clear (“The post-war goes on forever,” Yaguchi observes at one point).

Even the naming rights to the monster take on international dimensions: one of the few moments of comic relief involves the difference between the Japanese name “Gojira” and the Americanized “Godzilla,” a sometimes-contentious subject among fans. And speaking of unintentional comedy, Shin Godzilla‘s occasional forays into English dialogue are . . . idiosyncratic, to say the least (one American scientist casually drops “Our nuclear wisdom will be mankind’s savior” into a conversation, which got a few chuckles, from me at least).

That dry tone makes the scenes of destruction all the more shocking when they do occur. Godzilla’s arrival begins with a mysterious eruption in Tokyo Bay that closes down an underwater tunnel and sends geysers of steam skyward. After a series of inconclusive committee meetings, a huge (and supremely weird) amphibious animal appears and waddles on to land, plowing through a river full of boats and streets full of cars, pushing them out of the way as if they were toys. The reassuring evaluation by scientific consultants (as well as the extended treatment of Godzilla’s radioactive metabolism) show the influence of Darren Naish and other “speculative biologists,” if only to tweak their assumptions: the amphibious creature could never support its weight on land . . . until it does. A creature of its size would be unable to metabolize enough oxygen to live . . . unless it were a living nuclear reactor! It’s not even clear at first that the creature is Godzilla: this version of the famous kaiju takes on multiple forms, “evolving” like a Pokémon as it gathers energy.

In his final form, Godzilla has the familiar thick-legged outline (but with tiny, tyrannosaur-like arms and a long tail), but his hide is creased with red lines where he glows from within, giving him a demonic, flayed appearance. Finish the design off with beady, inexpressive eyes (“like a doll’s eyes”) and you have a terrifying (and fantastically huge) take on the character, a perfect update of the original Godzilla‘s vision of the monster as enigmatic, unknowable being and force of nature. Extrapolating on the creature’s radioactive origin and fiery breath, Anno comes up with some truly devastating applications, including focused beams (from Godzilla’s mouth and dorsal spines) that are more like lasers than flame-throwers. The result of Godzilla unleashing this force in the middle of Tokyo at night makes for a tense and unnervingly one-sided battle against military helicopters. The resulting irradiation of parts of the city, and the serious issues of when and how to evacuate civilians, raise echoes of the long displacement that followed the tidal wave and meltdown in Fukushima (like the scenes of evacuating crowds, clips of civilians in long-term shelters strike a deeper chord than they might if they only sprang from the screenwriter’s imagination).

As far as the production goes, Shin Godzilla has the most seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects I have yet seen, comparable only to Edwards’ film (and for the record, Anno isn’t nearly as stingy with footage of the monster as Edwards was); the sound design puts viewers right in the middle of the action (particularly in the theater), and it’s gratifying to hear passages from Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music on the soundtrack. Shin Godzilla is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.

Review: Monster, 1959

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

K. leaps into existence amid them all, shark-eyed, snake-tongued reality: misery given form, solid and undeniable and taller than Hell itself. Feathers like a bloodsmear across his thorax, claws lashing furrows in the ground. Gangs of teeth glaring at the crowd over his lipless slash. Everybody screams.

It sounds like science fiction, and in strict terms, it is. The plot is the most familiar element of David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959–explorers discover an extraordinary monster on a remote Pacific island, and after restraining the beast they transport it to America to put it on display, after which eventually everything goes to Hell–but the novelty of the story isn’t really Maine’s concern. Monster, 1959 is the kind of novel that applies probing psychological realism to genre material, finding unexpected complexity beneath the surface of broadly-sketched stock types. What Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love did for Freaks and its body-horror descendants, Monster, 1959 does for King Kong and the monster movies of the 1950s.

If so many of the alien-invasion and monster-rampage stories of the Cold War were metaphors for political anxieties, postwar social displacement, and the catch-all term “future shock,” Maine is concerned with re-literalizing those metaphors, making sure that his fanciful monster mash takes place in a world that includes not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, but also the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the eviction of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel. Maine’s omniscient shifts in focus from close-ups on the main characters to the wide shots of world events is reminiscent of the intriguing book Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings and Erik Davis, which also shares Monster, 1959‘s year-by-year structure in making connections between seemingly disparate strands of history and popular culture.

In Monster, 1959, the main characters are the giant chimerical monster K., for “Kama ka,” the name given to him by the islanders who worship him as a god (but perhaps also standing for Kong, or kaiju, or in reference to the monogrammatic protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial); Betty, the white woman whom K. first abducts and then finds himself strangely bonded to; and Johnny, the square-jawed man of action and Betty’s husband/rescuer. In retelling this age-old but highly specific beauty-and-the-beast tale, the members of the central triangle (and numerous characters who enter their orbit) are given shading and moral ambiguity, and of course relevance beyond the single story.

The novel’s most winning creation is K. himself, and Maine effortlessly relates events from K.’s perspective: animalistic, responsive to direct stimuli, and without much imagination or sense of the past or future. Despite the limitations inherent in writing from this point of view, Maine sketches a believable (and believably mysterious) persona. It’s common for audiences to partially identify with King Kong or Godzilla, but Maine is interested in what it would really feel like to be such a creature. While there is a fair amount of action in the story (“some sci-fi monster violence,” as the MPAA would have it), for all his size and power, K. is not the bloodthirsty predator one might expect; in fact, he’s a vegetarian. K.’s reactions to the humans invading his domain, the strange effect that Betty and her singing have on him, and his confusion at the series of entrapments and enclosures that he endures convey both how alien K.’s mentality is, and how alienating the modern world is when seen anew. Like the greatest movie monsters, K. is fearsome but ultimately sympathetic.

K., chained and transported in a custom box car, drugged and put on display in one roadshow after another, isn’t the only character who is trapped. There’s Doug, the seven-foot-two circus performer whose freakish height has come to be just as much a prison, and to whom the duty of administering K.’s sedatives has devolved. “It would be falsely melodramatic to say,” Maine tells us, “When Doug injects K., he feels as if he is injecting himself.” All the same, he does become disenchanted and disgusted enough to begin passive-aggressively slacking off, a decision that makes K.’s dramatic escape from confinement while performing at Madison Square Garden as inevitable as the failure of Jurassic Park’s electric fences. Life finds a way.

Betty, whom K. abducts all over again in New York, is not just a damsel in distress, but a woman of her generation whose deepest urges tell her to “throw herself into” her marriage and to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. This extends to playing along with their friend Billy’s scheme to take the monster on tour, reenacting her abduction as a modern Romeo and Juliet story for paying audiences, against her better judgment. Johnny, over the course of the novel, finds that his experience in rescuing Betty has awakened a taste for adrenaline and alpha-male displays of prowess, a search for ever-greater highs that is ultimately his undoing. Ultimately it comes down to sex in forms as polymorphous as K.’s own mismatched body. “By now,” Maine writes after a particularly perverse episode, “you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there any normal people in the world?

Finally, Monster, 1959 is no mere pastiche or stylistic exercise. Like the best environmental horror, it’s a warning, with K., the troubled child of the atomic bomb and master of an island of mutated terrors, returning like a bad dream to the country that created him and had hoped to forget him. Just as in a movie, the monster may be dispatched, but audiences know the fears that created it are still out there, and the monster can always come back.

THE END . . . ?

Review: A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju

The United States has its share of giant monsters, most famously King Kong, but let’s face it: if you’re really a fan, you’ve probably looked to our friends in Japan and wondered at the range of kaiju (“strange beasts”) that make the Land of the Rising Sun their home: Godzilla, Gamera, Ghidorah, and even some whose names don’t begin with the letter G. It seemed like unless you lived somewhere on the Pacific Rim, your chances of finding a native-grown kaiju were pretty slim . . . until now.


Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor have provided A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju to introduce some of the critters that call the Bluegrass State home. Just as its title indicates, Kentucky Kaiju is a bestiary, a collection of two-page spreads with descriptive text, a guidebook that populates its imaginary Kentucky with both creatures that fit the character of their home and a history that ties them together. The book features dozens of imaginative creations, from the reptilian, hundred-foot-tall Komodo Supremis to the “micro-kaiju” Mini-Mainframe, a super-intelligent mouse. It’s the kind of book I would often spend hours at a time browsing as a kid, and the creators haven’t forgotten the simple pleasure of looking at pictures of cool, larger-than-life monsters. Every page has some witty or inventive surprise.

In fleshing out the beasts that might live in Kentucky, the creators naturally draw on the native fauna as well as such regional staples as horse racing, bourbon, and barbecue, giving a local flavor to the genre (the phrase “unregulated country science” is just one of the many delightful hooks that sent my own imagination racing). There’s also a sly humor in many of the details, from the “kaibetes” (kaiju diabetes) that the insectoid Black Gnat contracted from its obsession with New Coke to the super-patriotism of Navigator Ace, a three-headed eagle who lives on red, white and blue bomb pops and listens to Garth Brooks between bouts against other kaiju.

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Historically, many kaiju have represented the awesome power of nature or man’s scientific hubris; many of the creatures in this book are primal in their appeal, with connections to the still-untamed wilderness of mountains and forests. Some of these wild and powerful creatures are described as being contained in special wildlife reserves and isolated state parks, away from population centers where they might cause trouble. But for the more domesticated kaiju, the Kentucky they inhabit is modern and down-to-earth, with many of them making their homes in truck stops, pizza joints, and even a drive-in movie theater. And there’s more to life for these beasts than rampaging: you’d be surprised how many of them enjoy the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yet more are described as already dead, having perished in battle with their monstrous cousins.

True to the kaiju genre, many of the kaiju have become guardians of their particular town or landmark. Some of these heroic creatures were the results of scientific experiments (indeed, one of the threads that runs through the book is the attempt to harness or exploit the kaiju’s miraculous qualities, which doesn’t always work out as planned), or are second-generation kaiju that retain the good qualities of their unmutated parent animal. An example is Catdronius, defender of Battle, Kentucky, a hybrid cat-butterfly kaiju so gentle in repose that it allows children to ride on its back (if they’ve signed a waiver).

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju is a lot of fun to look at, thanks to the loose ink-and-brush illustrations (by Stewart and Bowling; the companion text is by Pryor). The creature designs are inventive, mostly true to the spirit of the “rubber suit” monster movies that are a clear inspiration, and which leave enough to the imagination to inspire readers to come up with their own explanations for details in the picture. (Personally, I have a lot of questions about Convoyacon, the result of a sentient liquor-barrel mating with a train car; hopefully one of the promised future installments of Kentucky Kaiju will shed some light on that episode.)

Although not explicitly being promoted as a gaming supplement, I can see game masters getting a lot of mileage out of this book as both a colorful campaign setting or as a source of wacked-out monster ideas. As with those bestiaries and monster manuals I enjoyed flipping through as a young reader, Kentucky Kaiju is perhaps most valuable as a launchpad for readers to imagine their own stories; as with any “shared world” or open-ended mythology, be it the Godzilla series or the tall tales of the South, it invites readers to play along and add their own pieces to the crazy quilt laid in front of them.

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju by Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor will be released by Apex Book Company (who graciously provided me with a PDF preview copy) on October 18. It’s currently available for pre-order.

The Political Fantasies of BrainDead and Vote Loki

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

In 2008, just days after the presidential election, South Park aired an episode exploring Barack Obama’s victory. In the episode, both Obama and his political opponents, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, were shown secretly working together, running an Ocean’s 11-style long con (including faking their identities: the “real” Palin had a posh British accent, for example) in order to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian via a tunnel hidden beneath the Oval Office. In the B-plot, the conservative residents of South Park holed up in a bunker, readying themselves for the collapse of society they felt sure would follow Obama’s election, while liberal Randy Marsh went on a celebratory spree, leading to telling off his boss and parading down the street naked, so convinced was he that Obama’s victory had changed everything and that things were going to be different now. For such a regularly cynical show, it was oddly reassuring, suggesting that erstwhile political foes could actually work together, even if it was to perpetrate a jewel heist, and the B-plot served to deflate both the apocalyptic and messianic rhetoric that had made the election so divisive. Things won’t change that much, it seemed to say.

Fast-forward to 2016, and such notions of cooperation seem downright quaint; the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Contender, has raised questions as to whether satire is relevant or even possible anymore. No writer or cartoonist can top the bizarre reality that Trump has built up in his repeated lies, promises, and threats, and that we now find ourselves trapped in. No modern “A Modest Proposal” could be more shocking than some of Trump’s own statements, no discriminatory or unconstitutional policy proposal so disgusting that it won’t find support in at least some portion of the electorate, newly empowered by Trump to express their bigotry out in the open. I’m starting to understand how conservatives suffering from “Obama derangement syndrome” must have felt; recently I had a “step away from the computer” moment when I realized that for my own mental health I couldn’t spend all my time reading and relaying news stories and commentaries about Trump: with more than a month still to go before the election and a flood of ever-more-insane details trickling out every day, I needed to get some fresh air or else I’d go crazy.

So perhaps it’s fitting that two of my summer pleasures channeled this pervasive political anxiety into forms that are both more palatable and which provided the narrative closure that eludes us in real life: BrainDead, a thirteen-episode CBS series that ended two weeks ago, and Vote Loki, a four-issue Marvel comic book miniseries that wrapped up last Wednesday.

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

In Vote Loki, written by Christopher Hastings with art by Langdon Foss, the Norse god of mischief (and recovering supervillain) Loki manipulates his way into the presidential race, to the consternation of Nisa Contreras, a crusading journalist whose own drive to uncover the truth was fueled by the destruction of her childhood home during a battle between Loki and the Avengers. Contreras’s attempts to reveal Loki’s true purposes are continually co-opted by the candidate himself, spinning every new revelation into more proof that Loki is a “chess master,” an outsider working the system for his own ends. Loki’s ascent, which begins with him saving the two mainstream candidates from an attack by the terrorist group HYDRA, is driven by his celebrity status: at first a novelty, his “plainspoken” openness about his villainous character earns him the loyalty of supporters who feel left out of the process. “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it,” he says; his slipperiness is just part of his rakish appeal. (When Contreras provides proof that Loki’s political advisors are actually members of a Loki-worshipping cult, Loki laughs it off: he said he was a god, and doesn’t the First Amendment protect freedom of religion?)

Of course, this is a comic book world, so in addition to HYDRA, other threats to the republic include a destabilized Latveria (home of Doctor Doom, whose absence has created a dangerous power vacuum and a terrorist-supporting regime calling itself “Doom’s Children”) and issues surrounding superpowered mutants and Inhumans. Some of Loki’s Asgardian relatives make appearances, as well, including Thor, who as a member of the Avengers can’t get involved officially but who passes some critical information to Contreras.

Like most “outsider” candidacies, Loki’s first and most important platform is that the other guys, who represent the “system,” are worse, both equally compromised and too indebted to the establishment to change anything. (The two mainstream candidates are a man and a woman, but are unnamed, and there is little else to identify them as Trump or Hilary Clinton.) Again, that’s an argument frequently bandied about by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein in this election (and by supporters of Bernie Sanders who aren’t ready to accept his concession to Clinton in the Democratic race); it’s complete baloney to say that there’s “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates, especially this year, but it’s an easy sell when the two major candidates are seen so negatively and even members of their own parties are having trouble expressing much enthusiasm for them.

Absurd times call for absurd heroes: Loki joins fellow Marvel character Howard the Duck in mounting an insurgent campaign, and like Howard’s 1976 run, Loki’s campaign is in the tradition of courageous truth-tellers who say what they’re really thinking (and what is Trump if not “outspoken”?) and are loved by voters for daring to speak their mind. Of course, one man’s Man of the Year is another man’s A Face in the Crowd, and the flip side of all that honesty is a loose cannon shooting his mouth off, a demagogue who tells voters what they want to hear and gives them permission to exercise their basest passions.

Early in Loki’s campaign, J. Jonah Jameson challenges Loki during a television interview: “Everyone loves an electoral circus, and now you’re the sideshow! What fun! Until you get so big you get your own tent.” Sound familiar? Over months of mounting alarm over the possibility of a supervillain taking control of the United States through legal means, the American system of politics as reality programming is held up to a funhouse mirror, with Loki’s real intentions hidden (perhaps even from himself) until the eve of the election.

BrainDead, created by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), working with more narrative space and a larger cast of characters on television, takes a different approach, one in which the real action is in Congress. BrainDead explicitly takes place in our world, with frequent references to the Clinton/Trump race and clips of the candidates’ appearances on television screens, but in its own way it’s as far out as the gods and superheroes of Vote Loki, as if the Kings finally had somewhere to put all their ideas that were too crazy for The Good Wife.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

As BrainDead begins, struggling documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has reluctantly returned home to Washington, D.C., and her political-dynasty family, to help her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Senator. At the same time, a strange meteorite recovered from Russia turns out to be full of ant-like parasites that infect their victims by climbing into their ears and eating half of their brains. A few of the infected succumb to Scanners-like head explosions (or “catastrophic head injuries”), but the rest are taken over by the insects and undergo a personality change, becoming more rigid, aggressive, and ideologically-driven. Conservatives are pushed farther to the right, liberals to the left, with no ability to find common ground. Once the meteorite is taken to Washington and members of the political class are exposed to the bugs, the result is chaos and gridlock produced by the already-intense partisanship being thrown into overdrive. Laurel, working in her brother’s office as a constituent liaison, is one of the first to notice something strange is going on.

So BrainDead clearly follows in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with strong shades of The X-Files. Who can you trust? How can you fight something that most people won’t even believe in without evidence? When even her longtime friends change overnight, Laurel is aided in uncovering the truth by a physician (Nikki M. James) and that standby of conspiracy thrillers, the paranoid loner: Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), an eccentric autodidact who knows a little about everything and keeps his cell phone wrapped in tin foil so the NSA can’t track his location. The insider’s-view political satire (which is frequently very funny) is tightened and made queasy by its sci-fi/horror flourishes and even moreso by its obvious, if heightened, relationship to the real world.

As good as Winstead is in the lead, the cast’s MVP is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus. Before being infected by the bugs, Wheatus was an unambitious, day-drinking good-ol’-boy politician, but after infection he becomes a laser-focused, uncompromising (even murderous) right-wing warrior (and a teetotaler: among other signs of infection is an aversion to alcohol) and Luke Healy’s nemesis. As the bugs spread to ordinary citizens, Wheatus turns their heightened political passion into a movement (the “One Wayers”) and begins engineering a war against Syria based on false evidence. Wheatus’s Democratic counterpart, the similarly bug-infected Minority Leader Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) plays along from her own side of the aisle. The reasoning behind the Syria plan takes a while to unravel, but it ultimately ties into the bugs’ plans to keep the humans divided and our government paralyzed by disagreement.

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

I’ve read criticism that BrainDead indulges in too much “both-sidesism,” a chronic complaint against American political satire that attempts to take on the “system” or politicians at large rather than having a specific point of view. As the old saying goes, the middle of the road is a good place to get run over from both directions. There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly in light of Laurel’s romantic entanglement with Senator Wheatus’s Chief of Staff, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an idealistic (and uninfected) Good Republican who couldn’t have been any more of a paragon if he were specifically written to counter charges of liberal partisanship. While Wheatus conducts his secret war plans, murders political enemies who get in his way, and makes a mockery of the political process (in one memorable episode, he holds up an entire committee over naming a kiosk in the Capitol Building after a slain police officer named Sharie because it sounds too close to “Sharia,” an idiotic idea that would be a lot funnier if it didn’t sound like something that could really happen), Gareth’s biggest flaw is that he’s stubbornly straight-arrow, and he can’t get over the possibility that Laurel might have slept with Michael Moore. Conservativism is more savagely satirized on BrainDead than liberalism, if only because the GOP is in such disarray and provides so much material, but it’s extremism, not conservatism itself, that comes in for the most criticism.

But that’s the point: that our democratic system depends on dialogue and compromise, and the real danger to it is a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth attitude that would rather tear down the whole system than give an inch to the “enemy.” Cronyism and politics as usual make reliable targets, and there is much to decry in the horse-trading and back-scratching of pork-barrel politics, but this is an unusual moment. We are reaping the political landscape that comes from gerrymandering “safe” districts that allow primary challengers to push candidates to extreme positions; the normalization of inflammatory rhetoric; and the echo chambers that arise when every political viewpoint has its own news outlet and we are able to insulate our social media experience from opinions we disagree with. On BrainDead, it’s the politicians who are willing to compromise, to be seen drinking and socializing with their opponents, and who are willing to work the system rather than let it grind to a halt, that are portrayed as heroic–flawed, perhaps, but heroic. The Kings all but spell it out for us by having Laurel herself says as much in episode 11, in which she plays the bohemian artist card to explain her recent obsession with bugs: “I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I use the language of metaphor. . . . So all the bug stuff you heard was just my way of talking about all the extremism in Washington. As an artist, I use metaphors a lot, probably too much. I love metaphors.”

In the end, things get back to normal, which is to say the inefficient, corrupt system continues: it’s “politics as usual,” and that’s a relief. Red Wheatus is back to his not-too-bright self, and it turns out that half a brain is plenty to function in Congress (cue laugh track). Similarly, in Vote Loki the title character observes the unrest and even violence that has erupted in response to his candidacy and finally deigns to face his supporters directly. Naturally, they all want different things from him, and when pinned down he finds that you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. (Of course, maybe he never really wanted to be president, and had other goals in mind the whole time–something that has frequently been said of Donald Trump–but who can say?) As in the 2008 South Park episode, it’s a reassuring (if modest) vision. Both BrainDead and Vote Loki ultimately come down in favor of the status quo, imperfect as it is, and in so doing partake of the oldest myth in America: that as frequently as our system breaks down, as tested as it may be by the original sin of racism, the corruption of big money, and the easy answers of ideology and demagoguery, it is capable of renewal: that out of the chaos of the electoral process, we will pick ourselves up and rebuild, as we do every four or eight years. Can we pull it off one more time? I sure hope so.

Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.


First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?


I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.


Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flying G-Men


“The peace and security of the nation have been threatened by a campaign of espionage and sabotage, conducted by a powerful spy ring whose head is known as the Professor! The Bureau of Investigation has assigned three flying G-Men to the case. They created the Black Falcon, a mysterious masked pilot whose sudden raids spread terror and confusion among the ranks of the conspirators!”


That burst of breathless narration (or a variation of it) introduces each chapter of the 1939 Columbia serial Flying G-Men, and honestly it summarizes the situation as well as I could, so let’s get to the meat of the discussion. Frankly, I often get hung up on plot, in the sense that when I’m reviewing something, or writing my own fiction, I spend way more time trying to untangle and summarize the action than I do when I’m just watching or reading something for pleasure. All along, I think I’ve been clear that I don’t really watch serials for their timeless stories or (God knows) their deep sense of characterization, but rather for their lurid, punchy aesthetic. An iconic pose; an atmosphere of potent menace; a trained dramatic actor making a meal of a pulp hack’s overheated prose; in short, the “cool factor” are greater contributors to my enjoyment than mere plot mechanics. I get the same kind of pleasure from an isolated image or moment that a really good cover illustration or dramatic turn of phrase conveys.


Still, unlike a pulp magazine cover or the posters that advertised the serials, movies unfold in time and feature narratives that deliver those moments in a structured way, so as I write I feel that I have to deal with the flow from A to B to C. It’s easy to get caught up in summary that is neither interesting to write nor to read, but is necessary for context when explaining why it’s so cool that it wasn’t really the Black Falcon who got shot by the Professor’s henchmen at the end of Chapter Ten, but rather a captured spy that the G-Men dressed in the Falcon’s uniform to serve as a decoy (or whatever).

Flying G-Men provides many such moments, so I loved almost every minute of it. I think I’ve come to the realization that I enjoy police and gangster serials more than superhero or science fiction serials. In many cases, they are just as fanciful as their high-concept peers, featuring similar costumed characters and high-tech gadgets, but the supposedly more realistic setting forces them to explore that world in greater depth, as well as intersecting with crime pictures, film noir, and other kinds of drama in ways that are surprisingly artistic and expressive. Take a look at the frame below, for example: it’s as absolutely clear as a silent film what’s happening. That’s not to say that such artistic choices aren’t sometimes made in superhero or sci-fi serials, but I have noticed a tendency to lean on the dazzling design elements rather than creative staging in many of them.


Of course, some exposition is inevitable. The titular G-Men, all in the employ of the FBI’s Air Division, were formerly known as the “Skyhawks,” a foursome who previously set a record flying around the world. (As in Pirate Treasure, an accomplishment that would ensure a lifetime of accolades in real life is here merely part of the heroes’ background; it’s as if Mark Watney’s experiences on the red planet in The Martian had served only to prepare him to stop a jewel heist on Earth.) The designer whose inventions made that flight possible, Ed McKay, has developed a remote-controlled robot bomber for military use, remarkably similar to a modern drone aircraft. Of course such a design is a target for espionage, and under the direction of the mysterious “Professor” a wide-ranging spy ring first kills McKay (leaving behind his sister and young son) and then makes efforts to steal the bomber plans for its own use.


The spy ring is based on Flame Island, a fortified stronghold off the coast. The G-Men, unsatisfied with their legal remit to apprehend the spies, come up with a costumed identity, the “Black Falcon,” who can act with a free hand (as is frequently the case, this is really a pretext for dressing up in costume and using cool gadgets, because it’s not like the G-Men are held up by such red tape as arrest warrants, inquiries into their use of force, or even trials). The Falcon wears a stylish leather flight suit and face mask with goggles, very similar to the Tiger Shark from The Fighting Marines (and anticipating the twenty-first century tendency to replace spandex superhero costumes with more “realistic” paramilitary-style gear).


In order to protect the Falcon’s identity, the G-Men do not reveal to anyone (including the audience, until the very end) which of them is wearing the hero’s costume (The opening credits show “? ? as the Black Falcon”). As a proto-superhero, the Black Falcon even has a gimmicky talisman, a dart that he leaves behind to mark his kills (if he remembers, so about half the time).


Thus, while the identity of the “Professor” is left unsolved only for the first third of the serial, the real mystery is which of the G-Men is the Black Falcon. The fact that Bronson, one of the four G-Men, dies early on would suggest a rather obvious answer to that puzzle, but you won’t get it from me: you’ll just have to watch for yourself. On occasions when the other two G-Men are accompanying the Falcon, they also wear face-covering masks to keep up the air of mystery, but they needn’t have bothered: as three white guys with dark hair and similar builds, I could hardly tell the three G-Men apart even when unmasked unless they called each other by name. (Is it just me? Maybe I suffer from face blindness when it comes to the actors in old black-and-white movies.)




Flying G-Men is a pleasure to watch even when spinning its wheels: the action, of which there is quite a bit, in the form of fist fights, shoot-outs, and car chases, is generally clear and exciting. Fights are often no-holds-barred brawls, free of the stagey, wooden quality that plagues some serials, and they flow organically from the situation rather than beginning from an arbitrary “time to fight now” beat. The surging, constantly active score (credited to musical director M. W. Stoloff, but the work of diverse hands including composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff) does a lot of the work as well, giving a sense of urgency even to scenes of dialogue. (The main title theme in particular sounds like the Superman march and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had a baby.) Aerial scenes, oddly enough, are relatively weak, in some cases cut together from obvious stock footage and in most places unclear as to how the combatants are positioned in relation to each other (see my comments below on the end of Chapter Four for a particularly egregious example). Still, these scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and in any case the “Flying G-Men” and the Black Falcon spend as much time fighting the spies on land as they do in the air.

One nice touch is the degree to which events simply refuse to cooperate with the clichés of the genre: for example, disguises are a staple of spy adventures, but almost every time the G-Men attempt to pass themselves off as someone else, they are recognized. Going undercover as workers at an aircraft plant, G-Man Cummings (James Craig) is immediately recognized by Hamilton, the company’s president (and possibly the Professor himself); they had met in the FBI director’s office previously. Cummings offers the lame explanation “Other people have made the same mistake,” but the damage is already done. In another chapter, Andrews (Robert Paige) and Davis (Richard Fiske) invade a hidden lab belonging to the spy ring; after knocking out the lab workers, they don their protective masks and try to take their place when more spies arrive to check on them. “You’re not Walker!” one exclaims after hearing Andrews’ voice, and another fistfight erupts. So much for the art of deception.

Flying G-Men also benefits from a strong ensemble of back-up players. Sammy McKim (young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion) plays Billy, the orphaned son of the designer killed in the first chapter. Although not involved in every chapter, Billy has just the right amount of presence in the serial: in some chapters he’s put in danger and must be rescued, and in others he contributes to the G-Men’s campaign by being places that only children can go without arousing suspicion. He also has a few scenes with other kids, lending the support of his network of child airplane modelers and HAM radio enthusiasts to the G-Men. (And boy are those kids quick: in one scene, Billy’s aunt Babs is abducted by the spy ring and through quick thinking she drops her brother’s medal out of the car in front of a pair of boys. “Somebody in that car was trying to get a message to the G-Men!” they immediately conclude.)

Babs (another veteran of the serials, Lorna Gray, who later changed her screen name to Adrian Booth) similarly gets involved in a few of the chapters; aside from being kidnapped a couple of times, she also uses her head and helps the G-Men carry out their plans, mostly by pretending to have some more undisclosed plans for her brother’s designs, as a way of luring members of the spy ring out into the open.


I haven’t even mentioned the completely superfluous but nonetheless fantastic pretense by which the Professor recruits down-and-outers through his “Historical Study Group”; or the fact that the president of the steel mill in which some of the action is set is named “Lewis Carroll” for some reason; or the garage with a hidden elevator behind a sliding wall that forms a headquarters for the Professor’s second-in-command. Despite Columbia’s reputation for silliness, Flying G-Men largely strikes a satisfying balance between intentional and unintentional comedy: it knows how far-fetched this all is, but doesn’t feel the need to undercut its story with excessive winking and comic relief. Most gratifying to me, it also moves swiftly from one idea to the next, without the stretches of tedium that frequently plague serials (especially those in fifteen chapters). It has, in short, the quality that I value most in serials: it is imaginative, exhilarating, and above all, fun.


What I Watched: Flying G-Men (1939, Columbia)

Where I Watched It: Flying G-Men was in the batch of DVDs I got from eBay at the beginning of the summer. It can be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Frequently serial chapter titles will hint at the crisis featured in the episode or the cliffhanger that ends it, but most of the chapter titles in Flying G-Men are either vague enough that they could apply to any episode (Chapter One, “Challenge in the Sky”) or misleading, suggesting a doom that ends up being something else entirely (Chapter Nine, “Wings of Terror,” does include one of the serial’s many aerial dogfights, but ends with the Black Falcon falling off the roof of a building). Chapter Eleven’s title, “While A Nation Sleeps,” is an example of the former, conveying the shadowy, secretive activities of the spy ring, but has little to do with the events of the chapter: it doesn’t even take place at night.

Best Cliffhanger: In keeping with the disconnect between the chapter titles and the chapter endings, the cliffhangers are often somewhat perfunctory or not very well set up, indicating that they weren’t the filmmakers’ highest priority. Most of the chapters have plenty of action within the chapter that may or may not have anything to do with the cliffhanger. So while not the best cliffhanger, the one that has occupied my mind the most since watching it is at the end of Chapter Four, “The Falcon Strikes.” The spies, having publicized an experimental “stratosphere flight” that is actually intended to help them take aerial photographs of coastal defense installations, have ascended high into the sky in a spherical observation vessel suspended from a high-altitude balloon. The Black Falcon, finding out about the subterfuge and determined to stop the spies, attacks the balloon directly from his airplane, strafing the balloon with a machine gun. The editing of the sequence makes it look like the Falcon is diving toward the balloon, firing from above, but when the vessel falls, it lands directly on the Falcon’s plane, which is now somehow below the balloon. Both the vessel and the Falcon’s plane crash to the ground. It’s a real head-scratcher.




The resolution to this is also a curiosity: previously it’s been established that the Black Falcon sometimes flies a special small plane that can detach from a larger bomber, similar to the robot bombers whose plans are the MacGuffin of the serial. In the resolution to Chapter Four’s cliffhanger, it is shown that the Falcon flew away in the small plane while the spies’ vessel dropped the bomber to the ground. But as a newspaper headline shows, the Falcon’s “piggyback” plane is actually a “pick-a-back” plane. I’d never come across that idiom, but a little digging informs me that “pick-a-back” is actually the original form of the word. Still, according to my sources “piggyback” was current before the end of the nineteenth century, so it seems strange to see the older usage in print.


Sample Dialogue: “Who knows but that it’ll be the Black Falcon who’ll step in and capture this Professor? This mysterious flyer seems to be doing some excellent work. In fact, he’s what could be considered a first-rate flying G-Man . . . don’t you think so?” –FBI Director Frank Carlton (Edward Earle), Chapter Eleven, “While A Nation Sleeps”

What Others Have Said: “The Falcon has a black leather flying outfit that is handier to get to when needed than the Durango Kid’s horse, while his two remaining partners are stuck with your basic gray . . . and together they are close to being a precursor to “Blackhawk” and his band. . . . Keeping a straight face is not easy to do when facing a gang of henchmen directed by James W. Horne behind the over-wrought narration of Knox Manning.” –Les Adams, summarizing Flying G-Men on the International Movie Database

This concludes this year’s Fates Worse Than Death. Thanks for following along with me! Barring any serial-related articles I may write this fall or spring, serial coverage will resume next summer. In the mean time, I hope you’ll keep following Medleyana, as you never know what I’ll choose to write about next!