Graphic Novelty²


March 2023

Fiction’s Fearless Females: Dana Scully

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I have joined up with some other amazing bloggers to celebrate! This is the fifth year that I have participated in this series with Michael of My Comic Relief, Kalie of Just Dread-full, and Jeff of The Imperial Talker and this year I choose FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, MD, of The X-Files fame. This iconic role began in 1993 and spanned eleven seasons and two movies over the course of twenty-five years before ending (for good?) in 2018.

While most of my entries (Captain Kathryn Janeway, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Doctor Beverly Crusher and Counselor Deanna Troi) have revolved around Star Trek, this year I added Dana Scully to my roster, which also included Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies. All of these women are fearless in one way or another, but let’s dive into why Scully stands out!

The X-Files became a breakout science-fiction hit on the Fox Network. The show became must-watch tv for a legion of fans before shows were on demand and could be watched whenever you wanted. I distinctly remember watching the first season while I was in college, crowded into a room with my friends. I found this young professional woman an inspiration as I was on the cusp of entering the workforce myself.

The pilot episode establishes that Scully was specifically recruited to work with Fox Mulder, a fellow FBI Special Agent who researches paranormal cases. As a doctor and a skeptic, the higher-ups felt she could de-bunk Mulder’s findings and was tasked to be his partner while writing her own reports. Mulder was a believer in extraterrestrial life and it is established immediately that he feels his younger sister was kidnapped by aliens. While Mulder’s reports included his thoughts and observations on the cases they were trying to solve, Scully was expected to counter with scientific facts. She wasn’t a meek woman ready to simply follow her partner’s lead, she established her own independence and was ready for action as much as Mulder was. While Gillian Anderson, the actress who portrayed Scully is beautiful, she wasn’t unrealistically gorgeous and was given professional outfits that an FBI agent would have worn in that era.

Anderson’s role as Scully would end up having a profound effect on women in the 90s and beyond- “Watching Dr. Dana Scully on The X-Files inspired a generation of women to pursue careers in scientific fields according to a study highlighting the importance of diverse gender representation in media. The study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that the “Scully Effect” — the long-standing idea that Scully’s character encouraged women’s interest in science — was very real. Women who watched The X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM fields, and nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who now work in STEM considered her a role model. “Characters’ images and storylines in media shape our everyday lives in very profound ways,” says Geena Davis Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno. “In the case of ‘The Scully Effect,’ it shows that when, in media, we have non-traditional roles for women and girls it helps them envision these pathways for themselves.” Read more about this on the Geena Davis Institute website.

The show would weave in the mythology of government conspiracies to hide the truth about alien existence and doomsday plans with standalone episodes. About a third to half of each season’s episodes dealt with “mytharc”, aka alien conspiracy episodes that spanned the entire series but had a tendency to become very convoluted with minimal payoff (but that’s a digression for another post…). We do get introduced to her family, and her Catholic background is established which I felt was important to her character, as her faith was respectfully shown. Smart as a whip, Scully was always prepared for whatever was thrown at her.

Scully and Mulder remained partners for seven of the first nine consecutive seasons, but when the actor David Duchovny who played Mulder wished to pursue other projects, another FBI agent was brought in to pair with Scully. Scully’s new partnership with John Doggett had the roles reversed, with Scully becoming a believer after witnessing Mulder’s alien abduction, and Doggett being the skeptic. Mulder is released in time for the concluding episodes of the ninth season, conveniently back in time for the two movies. After the movies, there was a large gap before two short seasons tied up everything in 2018. This time, it was Gillian Anderson who felt she had given enough time to The X-Files and no longer wanted to continue with the role.

As with any show with two attractive leads, sexual tension between the duo was written into episodes with a “will they or won’t they” vibe throughout the entire run. While I was a fan of the two together, producers wisely kept them apart most of the time, so as to not infringe upon Scully’s professionalism. They are given a happily-ever-after in the concluding minutes of the very last episode with a highly improbable miracle pregnancy. While it was purely fan service at that point, I was equally pleased and frustrated at the tired trope of a woman finally being happy once she has a man and a baby. I can forgive that ending, because in so many other ways, Scully was a role model for women of today.

Gillian Anderson has had an amazing career and has gone on to play other memorable roles in House of Mirth, The First Lady, The Crown and Sex Education and is not afraid to take non-glamorous or controversial roles. Like Nichelle Nichols who transcended her role as Uhura in Star Trek, so has Anderson. She portrayed the character of Scully with so much passion that the STEM fields have better female representation because of her. Her fearless representation of showing a competent and professional woman, equal to any man, still reverberates today!

Header picture from an article in Decider

I love how they kept the opening credits for the entire run of the show, using the pictures of Scully & Mulder from the first season. I re-watched a few episodes from the first and last seasons before writing, and it made me want to dive into the deep mythology again! Pictures and opening credits from 20th Century Studios

Superman: Red and Blue

The colors red and blue symbolize the iconic Superman, and in this anthology, many different authors and artists share self-contained eight-page stories about DC’s famous hero using only those two colors. As with any collection like this, some were excellent, while others fell flat due to the storytelling or art. I will feature my favorites among the 30 stories in this collection.

Untitled – John Ridley, writer; Clayton Henry, artist

This story obviously picks up from a previous story, but it shows how Clark Kent has to interview a man who mistreated him when he was Superman. The ending is open-ended but realistic.

Deadline – Jesse J. Holland, writer; Laura Braga, artist

Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) wait for their good friend Clark Kent to meet them for dinner. They make a bet that he won’t make it on time, since Superman is such a do-gooder and will get distracted. But don’t underestimate Supes!

Kilg%re City – Michel Fiffe, writer & artist

The art is horrendous, but I liked seeing Hawkgirl, Booster Gold & Cyborg.

 A Man Most Saved – Brandon Thomas, writer; Berat Pekmezci, art

A man who has been saved 13 times by Superman over the course of his lifetime, shares how he returned the favor once, and as the news interview progresses he gets one more chance. I enjoyed the art.

Namrepus – Mark Waid, writer; Audrey Mok, artist

An enjoyable retro art style with Superman besting Mr. Mxyzptlk with pranks.

A Little Is a Lot – Robert Venditti, writer; Alitha Martinez, artist

The lessons of Clark’s youth serve him well in the future. Loved the art and coloring.

#SavedBySuperman – Rich Douek, writer; Joe Quinones, art

Great art with a mediocre story about social media influencers who force Superman to save them for likes. Sadly, I think this would happen in real life.

Fetch – Judd Winick, writer; Ibrahim Moustafa, artist and Streaky the Supercat in: Hissy Fit – Sophie Campbell, story & art

The first is about Clark’s dog Krypto and the second is a silly cat story with Supergirl. Gotta love Supes with his pets!

The Special – Tom King, writer; Paolo Rivera, artist

We saw Clark from infancy through his adult years with his own son visiting the same Kansas diner, and alongside the same waitress aging from a young woman to about to retire. A poignant and sweet story that utilized color very effectively.

Ally – Rex Ogle, writer; Mike Norton, artist

A teen gains resolve to tell his family he is gay because he takes strength from Superman when he tells the public his secret identity. Somewhat trite, but the art by Norton (one of my favorite artists) elevates it.

There were different versions of Superman that were used in the stories including Cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw, Bizarro and Val-Zod (Earth-2) that underperformed due to my unfamiliarity with them since the short stories didn’t give you enough time to explain who there were. Too many of the stories were banal and preachy, so as a whole I came away disappointed with this collection. If you like Superman and short stories try the excellent Superman: American Alien instead!

Mike Norton’s version of the Justice League was the best of the bunch!

My Boyfriend is a Bear

Tagline: “Nora has bad luck with men. When she meets an (actual) bear on a hike in the Los Angeles hills, he turns out to be the best romantic partner she’s ever had!”

Nora is a young woman who has had a string of bad romances when she meets a bear on a camping trip near LA. Some wildfires have driven wildlife into the neighborhoods nearby, and they re-meet, and she inexplicably invites him into her apartment. And thus their romance is born. Bear (he is never given another name) never learns how to talk but he can wear clothes, get a corporate job and give awesome cuddles. Nora’s friends and family have reservations about the relationship and point out the flaws but Nora is smitten and deems him the best boyfriend ever. However, when winter comes along Bear’s needed hibernation issues put the relationship at risk.

On Goodreads I belong to the group I Read Comic Books, and this month’s theme is stories with a moral, and I found this on a suggested list of theirs. I had heard buzz about this book in the past, so I figured it was a sign to read it. While this graphic novel is a romantic farce meant to be tongue-in-cheek the realist in me could not suspend her disbelief. I sided with Nora’s friend Debra who laid out all the reasons why her romance could not work (yes, the reason is SEX!) and their inability to have children together (among other reasons!). I know the lesson of the story is to live your best life and not worry about other people’s opinions, but…

Despite my issues with the storyline, the artwork is delightful and whimsical and will make you laugh aloud in places. I loved the concluding pages when the Bear is hibernating, and you see small sepia-toned panels of him sleeping while Nora glumly lives her life without him. Despite my practicality, their reunion was sweet and I wish them the best in their cross-species romance!

Fiction’s Fearless Females: Red from Us

I have joined for the fifth year with some other amazing bloggers to celebrate women under the auspicious blogging series titled: Fiction’s Fearless Females! For the next few weeks, three other bloggers and I will share who they believe is a fictional woman to be admired, and I will share each entry of the series on this blog. Today’s post comes from Kalie of Just Dread-Full, a superb blog that gives insightful critiques of the horror genre. 

Guest post from Kalie of Just Dread-Full

 Dear readers, gather around the campfire—okay, or the computer screen—as I regale you with a story.  Throughout time, we’ve been entertained with tales of heroes—the Mighty Achilles, Sir Gawain, Beowulf…Spiderman, Superman, Antman, Xena the Warrior Princess…and the list goes on.  I’m here today, however, to discuss a different hero—a single woman who, at a young age, was relegated to a cold, imprisoning underground lair not by any evil villain, but by her own image, staring back at her in a funhouse mirror.  For years, the subterranean woman lived among her subterranean people, a group of have-nots who were tethered to those in the world above, who “lived the lives” of those above ground, albeit without all the artifacts and accouterments associated with living.  Angry at her fate, this young woman grew up and devised a plan, inspired by the image on a t-shirt, that could be executed with a mere lighter and a few pairs of scissors.  The woman planned not just to take over a city, a state, or a nation, but, with the help of the others who lived with her underground, to take over the world, to re-populate the world above ground with her enslaved, tethered people.  She did not want fame, power, or fortune—merely justice and the warm light of the sun, for herself and those she lived among.  Thus, with nothing but cunning brilliance, a few dull sheers, an eccentric family, and some kickass dance moves, a young woman and her family entered the “ordinary world,” intent on inhabiting it by dominating it.

Photo by Universal/ILM/Kobal/Shutterstock (10162635c) Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson/Red ‘Us’ Film – 2019 A family’s serenity turns to chaos when a group of doppelgängers begins to terrorize them.

Okay, clearly I wasn’t suited to write heroic epics, but I think you get the gist of the story I just told.  If you’re a horror fan—more generally—and a Jordan Peele fan—more specifically—the story probably sounds familiar to you, because it’s the plot of the movie Us, albeit told a different way, in a different context.  Us immediately captivated me when I saw it because of the way it blurs the boundaries between the seemingly binary concepts of “good” and “evil,” along with the concepts of “self” and “other.”  I have written about Us before on this blog, however, and I suppose I risk, with this post, the chance of repeating myself.  Luckily, I’m not just writing about the film Us, but about a specific woman in the film for this year’s installment of Fiction’s Fearless Females.  Every year I join a few other bloggers for International Women’s Month, and we take turns writing about women in fiction who somehow—and often in a variety of unusual or unexpected ways—exemplify the word “fearless” – women who show extraordinary bravery in a variety of dire circumstances.  Other contributors to this series include Michael from My Comic Relief, Nancy from Graphic Novelty², and Jeff from the Imperial Talker, all of whom have written/will write about other fearless females and who I have featured and/or will feature on Just Dread-full.

For now, however, let us go back to the movie Us and focus on the woman I chose for this series (and I’ll note here that I have to include spoilers to highlight why I find this woman extraordinary—if my reasoning wasn’t evident in my opening story).  Anyone who’s seen Us knows that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’o plays two parts in the story: she is both Adelaide Wilson, a perfectly normal wife and mother living above ground with her family, and she is Red, her disheveled doppelganger who appears, one day, with a slightly altered version of Adelaide’s family.  After all, everyone in this story has a doppelganger. 

 We learn, eventually, that the miles upon miles of empty underground space around the world holds these hidden doppelgangers—replicas of human beings who live a weird sort of jittery life in which they emulate the gestures and mannerisms of their human match above ground, but they do so in what looks like a mixture of a classroom and a science lab—a space with no sign of stimulation or comfort, where the doppelgangers interact as best they can, appearing, as it were, to be slightly “monstrous” versions of their corresponding humans (if, that is, monstrosity is defined by a disheveled appearance and affective idiosyncrasies).

But that’s the trick of this film; at the beginning of her movie, Red and her family are clearly threatening to the Wilsons.  They appear, by all means, to be the “scary antagonists” of this incredibly unique horror film.  Only as we learn Red’s true story, and the corresponding story of Adelaide, do we realize that perhaps the lines between hero and villain—even between hero and anti-hero—aren’t that clearly drawn.  Perhaps the real bad guys are absent in the diegetic narrative, and in the entire debacle that unfolds in the film.  Ultimately, the film Us seems to assert what Jack Halberstam so wisely observed—that there is not a distinct binary relationship between “human” and “monster,” and that monsters should not be read as the binary antithesis of humanity.  After all, in some ways, both Adelaide and Red are monstrous, but both women—and I argue, especially Red—ultimately emerge as brilliant and heroic in their efforts to gain a normal, free, untethered life. 

 One of the key things to know to appreciate the movie (this is, also, by far the biggest spoiler) is that Adelaide and Red, who look like twins because they’re both played by Nyong’o and are, in fact, doubles, are also each other; Adelaide is actually Red and Red is actually Adelaide.  We are led to believe, at first, that when young Adelaide (later Red) enters a funhouse at a boardwalk amusement park in California and sees her double—a twin, but not an exact reflection, staring back at her in the mirror—the double takes her underground, but the original Adelaide manages to escape, albeit with the trauma of the experience haunting her.  For some time upon “returning” above ground, Adelaide does not talk.  A scene of a therapist speaking to Adelaide’s parents implies that as a child, after the event, she received therapy for her trauma and loss of speech, and eventually the therapeutic nature of dancing allowed her to regain that speech, deal with the trauma (to an extent), and live a normal life as an adult, with a husband and two children.  That is, initially, the story that the narrative provides us.

However, at the end of the film, the audience gets let in on exactly what transpired below ground, and we realize that it was never Adelaide who emerged.  Rather, her “double” (doppelganger, “tethered,” etc.) kidnapped “the original Adelaide” as a child, trapped her in the underground world and emerged above ground to take her place.  Red (the “replacement Adelaide,” the simulacrum) must become Adelaide, and Adelaide acts differently and stops speaking because it isn’t Adelaide who comes back.  Perhaps, then, to an extent, that is the horror of the doppelganger, who is, in this film, quite literally a “body-snatcher.”  You can be the parents of the doppelganger, the children of the doppelganger, or the doppelganger’s lover, and there’s no way to know that the person you think you know on a deep, personal level is or isn’t really who they say they are.  And yet, in this film, the catch for me was that there was nothing particularly horrific about the beautiful wife and mother, Adelaide Wilson, secretly hailing from an underground lair.  Why be afraid if we cannot tell the difference anyway?  Clearly Adelaide served her role well as a wife and mother.  The observation raises the question, then, if the “doppelgangers” are the scary “others” in the film, what, really, is the difference between self and other?  As a sidenote, if it’s not been made obvious already, when I say “Adelaide,” I try to refer to the child who originally lived underground but emerged in Adelaide’s place and grew up to be Adelaide Wilson.  Red is the woman who originally lived above ground, gets kidnapped, and starts a bloody revolution to free herself and the others who live underground.

 And it is a revolution, if we take up the dictionary definition that a revolution as a “forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system.”  That’s the thing with Red—whose name, interestingly, bears what was historically the symbolic color of the communist party: She and her family are presented as formidable weirdos at the start of the story, but her dismal life underground bespeaks to her obvious oppression, and an oppression, no less, brought on by humans.  We don’t really know how the “tethered” doubles came to be or why they’re relegated to underground lairs, but the mis en scene gives us some pretty good clues.  First, there are walls of rabbits in cages.  Though it appears that that the tethered are being fed raw rabbits, the image of rows full of cages with animals brings to mind animal-based scientific laboratory testing, which may not always be insidious but which generally has a negative connotation, especially when not the animals but the presence of the encumbering cages are foregrounded.  To that extent the rabbit in the film is both means for understanding and metaphor—we understand because of these carefully constructed rabbit cages that the “habitat” for the tethered was probably created by humans, but the rabbits in bare cages seem like metaphors for the tethered themselves, who live in spaces that look like bare hallways and classrooms—another clue that this is a very human-made situation.  Indeed, if rabbits are metaphors, and rabbits are often tested on, then it seems possible that the tethered were re-created in the name of “science”—perhaps, specifically, scientific testing that couldn’t be done on “humans.”  We never know, but part of the fun and fascination of the film is the speculation it allows and the sparse but careful clues it provides.  I am starting to think that a hallmark of films I love is that they give you enough to fill in the gaps, but not enough to fill in the gaps with any degree of certainty.  Myriad “backstories,” “prequels,” or other explanatory narratives could be made to explain the tethered, but we can’t know which one, for sure, although we can probably eliminate some guesses.      

There is, then, little question that at least the habitat for these “doubles” was made by humans.  Are the tethered captured at birth and forced to live underground, or are they more like clones, somehow created from the of DNA every human being at birth and then relegated to the subterranean?  Do the details even matter?  The point is, the “tethered” seem to be the creepy doubles of unknowing humans and, possibly, the byproduct of a cruel science experiment.  One cannot help but argue, then, that Adelaide (“Adelaide”) who originally lived underground but devised a method of escape through a portal in a theme park funhouse is a “fearless female” who saw the hopelessness of her fate and made concrete actions by changing it, by imprisoning a look-alike and blending herself into the above-ground world. (This trope is weirdly little mermaid-y, but without the presence of sparkling undersea kingdoms.  And on the mermaid note, Adelaide and Ariel share one commonality: both, when the emerge above ground, cannot speak comprehensibly to other humans.  Hmmm…hmmm…hmmm…).  It may seem “selfish” from a banal reading, but Adelaide’s act is an act of desperation, an act of brilliance, and an act of bravery.  Who, after all, would dare to spend their whole lives practically enslaved and then “sneak in” to the world of the “free,” nonchalantly blend themselves in, learn the language, and live a life that they had little concept of when they were below ground (in this case, surrounded by bare classrooms and animal cages). 

And despite how fascinated I am by Adelaide Wilson, the oppressed who was presumably born into the underground fate and managed to escape it through a mixture of careful maneuvering and pure aggression, “Red,” who is presented as the monstrous other, who’s been living underground for years when the film opens, is the one who fascinates me more.  For Adelaide makes a difficult decision (perhaps) and takes serious risks when she frees herself and becomes “part of that world,”  but Red is the character that the film would have us think is the “monster” and yet—yet, yet, she’s fighting to get some different version of her original life back, and in doing so, she joins all the doubles together, executes a complex plan, and leads what is commensurate to an underground worldwide revolution in which those—doppelgangers, doubles, clones (?)—can escape their enslaved fate and live out the free—or “free”—lives that we all prize so highly, especially in this country.  To that end, Janis Joplin is wrong, and freedom’s not just another word for “nothing left to lose” (take that, my Bobby McGee).  Adelaide Wilson, now free and vacationing in a summer home with her family, has everything to lose because she’s free, and “Red,” who was kidnapped and forced to live underground by Adelaide so many years ago, is willing to come back and take it. 

The implication of the film is that every human on earth has an underground double, or a tethered, because there’s a lot more space underground than we think (and the tethered, it appears, live in more crowded confines than those in the ordinary world do).  To that extent, the tethered people are Red’s world, and Red is leading not just the equivalent of a worldwide revolution, but, insofar as these two groups of people have been separated their entire lives with, in the case of the above-grounds, little to no knowledge of the other, she’s leading a revolution that is not like a takeover from outer-space, albeit one that comes from the other direction (which is, I suppose, another parallel worth considering, especially in the wake of Peele’s most recent film, Nope).   And she successfully orchestrates this complete takeover—for, by the end of the film, we see the tethered holding hands and forming a line above ground, like the “hands across America” image that we’re shown earlier in the movie—a lot of people above ground have died, and it appears the tethered, all over the world, are winning or have won.  And yet, we can’t call them evil. It is not malice, or killing for the sake of killing, that they do. It is a retaliation for a sort of colonization, for the tethered, to some extent, are subjugated the way a colonized person might be.  They are not just assimilated but are, instead, simulations, but they are (perhaps) assimilated simulations whose actions are extremely controlled and who are denied practically any external phenomenon, let alone useful resources.      

But in her powerful retaliation Red, in a sense, ignites the apocalypse, which is bloody and traumatic and scary for many humans who probably had no direct knowledge of the oppression of those underground, but is, still, a revolution—a complete takeover to escape a life of horrific oppression and to have the chance to live a decent existence, with buildings and plants and sidewalks and sun, above ground.  It is even more important to consider, I think, that Red was born above ground and has planned all this while living below it for years upon years, being somehow, peculiarly, tethered to Adelaide above ground so that she enacts a lot of the gestures Adelaide enacts, but without the external world to interact with.  (This movie could also be interesting, I think, from a phenomenological perspective). She has virtually nothing except the other tethered and some scissors that were left below ground as if they were classroom tools.  And yet, she successfully organizes the entire takeover of humanity—but not out of some act of malice or evil.  Because the only way the tethered can escape the bondage (at least, we infer) –the bondage of the underground, the bondage of being tethered to those above and being forced to imitate their gestures and interactions—is to kill their doppelgangers.

 I always hated when people would say, of my friends who died of alcoholism or addiction, “they must die so that others can live,” but it would appear to be the sad paradox of recovery that seeing enough people die of addiction or alcoholism convinces the recovering alcoholic to stay away from that stuff, and there’s a similar sad paradox of existence in this movie, insofar as that paradox is implied by the word “tethered” which means to tie with a rope or chain and restrict movement.  These underground beings are restricted by the invisible ropes that tie them to their comparatively privileged doubles above ground.  For killing the “above-ground” beings seems to break the rope, the chain, and then (not wholly unlike the proletariat taking over the bourgeoisie and forming a new world order in communist theory) the tethered, who have been tethered their whole lives, are set free.  Red and her family only seem like monsters through the myopic view of the diegetic humans in the narrative.  The situational irony of the film is that we know more than the human characters, so we understand that, no matter how fundamentally “bad” violence is, it’s tenuous and inconsistent to consider the tethered “monsters,” when the real monsters are probably the people who created and/or trapped them to begin with, and who aren’t featured in the diegetic narrative but are part of the above-ground beings, the normate humans.   

When Michael and I discussed what we would write about for “Fiction’s Fearless Females” this year, I originally considered a few other females, and Michael’s point provoked some thought within me: “Fearless” does not necessarily mean “heroic.”  The word hero, after all, as the introduction to this piece implies about fictional heroes, is deceptive, contested, and can as easily be applied, by dominant cultural ideology, to colonizing imperialists as it can to actual revolutionaries.  To that end, I guess I make two claims, here: If Red’s bloodshed negates her heroism, she is still about as fearless as a female can be with her decision to take over a (still male-dominated, normate-dominated, resourceful) world with a group of oppressed people and a pair of scissors.  But, we could argue that she is heroic in addition to being fearless.  In Homerian Greek myth the “heroes” went to war over the kidnapping of a single woman, Helen of Troy, because of that woman’s status and beauty.  War and its corresponding notion of “heroism” has been used for the acquisition of power, possession, and status, practically since agrarian culture sprung up and “war” so-called, became a thing.  A woman who is kidnapped, forced to a tethered non-existent existence underground, and leads a revolution to gain her freedom and the freedom of others is, in this case, still a killer, but we might categorize her motivations as “just,” and beyond that, clearly she’s not just fighting for her own freedom.  She is the one being down there, the only one, who has lived above ground at all, and she’ll use what she knows and risk her life to free them all.  Whether or not she is a “hero”—a word that is unimportant, anyway, in noun form—there is certainly something heroic about her. 

There’s so much you can do, conceptually, with this movie, and I can’t try to do it all right now, but I’m interested in two concepts, predominantly: the first is the doppelganger, which is often considered an evil twin or a harbinger of doom in fictional literature, and which indeed appears to be so in this film.  The doppelganger is also a metaphor for “self-seeing”—as worded by one website—and to this end, of course, the whole film could be read and has been read as a metaphor of seeing our more malevolent natures and emerging from them.  It’s a good reading—one, I think, that Peele even hinted toward—but it’s one of many ways, only, to read the film. 

The other thing I keep thinking of is Baudrillard’s simulacrum, which I know little to nothing about (I’ve never read Baudrillard) but which I googled when I was writing this piece.  What is interesting about the world of the tethered people is that, in many ways, it’s the antithesis of a simulacrum.  If a simulacrum is a near-exact or completely exact representation of an original, but one that, to Baudrillard, represents the truth or the hyperreal, than the world of the tethered is nothing like the world above.  Perhaps, then, it is the opposite of the real or the hyperreal because it’s a sort of non-simulacrum or an antithetical simulacrum. The beginning of the film, for example, shows people riding carnival rides above grounds, and beings moving awkwardly in abandoned hallways below ground, somewhat imitating the practice of riding rides, but without the excitement and pleasure of an amusement park ride to experience.  The subterranean is nothing like the world above; it lacks almost every type of phenomenon that the world above has.  So the world below cannot really be considered a simulacrum, but to some extent, the doubles can be.  What happens when you replicate a human but deny them the things that nurture humanity?  What happens to the simulacrum when it breaks, when only a part of the set-up is an exact replica, or when you put the replica into and environment that is antithetical to its needs? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and perhaps they are more philosophical than they are practical, but we could say this much: if the simulacrum represents the hyperreal, then the doppelgangers in Us are certainly about as alive, as real, as hyperreal as one could imagine.  And through cunning and courage, they release themselves from their horrendous fate, led by Red, this week’s fictional fearless female. 

The Me You Love in the Dark

Skottie Young and Jorge Corona, the creative team of Middlewest, conceived a Gothic romance about an artist who retreats to an old house to devote time to painting and discovers an otherworldly muse in the haunted house.

Ro is an acclaimed artist, who is taking a break to create new paintings for an upcoming art show. She rents a large Victorian home, although it is rumored to be haunted. She actually hopes it is, thinking it might be an inspiration for her paintings. And soon enough a spirit appears, but we see before she does, that it is malevolent. At first, the spirit seems shapeless, but after time is able to take on a tall dark form, eventually becoming corporeal, as he becomes intimate with Ro in a disturbing moment. While Ro is captivated by the spirit, this spirit becomes obsessed with her, preventing her from leaving the house. Her art agent becomes concerned as Ro has secluded herself away for too long and visits her home to check in. The spirit does not take kindly to the friend’s intrusion, and chaos and horror erupt.

As Young and Corona did with Middlewest, a dark theme is juxtaposed against a cartoony art style, but soon enough the story transcends the art. A moody Gothic vibe is established in the rambling old home with gloomy hues and exaggerated features. As Ro struggles with artist’s block, the evil spirit is able to manipulate her into trusting him and says everything she wants to hear, as he slowly tightens his hold on her life. An evocative scene with the spirit showing her hundreds of old paintings, many of them depicting women, made me wonder how many other women he had seduced in the years prior. Ro clues in late to her lover’s intentions, and another chapter would have been helpful in fleshing out the tale.

After Ro battles for her life, an ambiguous ending concludes the narrative, effectively making you wonder if the spirit lives on, ready to wreak havoc in someone else’s life. This story was an interesting mash-up of toxic relationships and horror, and I found it to be an enjoyably creepy read.

Fiction’s Fearless Females: Xena Princess Warrior

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I have joined for the fifth year with some other amazing bloggers to celebrate women under the auspicious blogging series titled: Fiction’s Fearless Females! For the next few weeks, three other bloggers and I will share who they believe is a fictional woman to be admired, and I will share each entry of the series on this blog. First up is Michael from My Comic Relief– whose blog is must-reading for his brilliant views on comics, Doctor Who, social justice, Spider-Man and of course this iconic warrior! 

By Michael Miller of My Comic Relief

It’s Tuesday, March 8th – International Women’s Day 2023!  Once again I’ve teamed with other bloggers – Kalie of Just Dread-fullNancy of Graphic Novelty2, and Jeff of The Imperial Talker  – to celebrate some of our favorite female characters in all of fiction.  In a wave of ‘90s nostalgia I decided to write about Xena this year.  How has it taken me five years of doing this series to get to Xena?!!?  Xena: Warrior Princess ran for 134 episodes over six seasons from 1995 through 2001.  Starring Lucy Lawless as Xena and Renee O’Connor as her best friend Gabrielle, the show took hold of pop culture in a way few things have in my lifetime.  It left a lasting impression, too.  As I told everyone who I was writing about this year I kept getting the best responses.  “Ahh!  I loved that show!”  “She was my hero!”  “I loved Xena!”  “I watched her show all the time!”  With Xena: Warrior Princess premiering when I was in seventh grade, Xena wasn’t just an iconic character for me; she was also archetypal.  In many ways, Xena formed my understanding of a “fearless female hero.”  She was my first fully fleshed out example.  She wasn’t part of an ensemble cast.  She wasn’t guest starring in another male hero’s show.  Xena rode alone (well, with Gabrielle of course!) and there was nothing she couldn’t do.

So I invite you, dear reader, to wander down this road of memories with me as I celebrate one of the most iconic and important heroes I’ve ever met.  (And if you wanna let out your best rendition of Xena’s famous warrior yell as we go, feel free!  I won’t tell anyone ;D.  I’ve been doing it again for weeks now, too.)

Traditionally when I write these pieces, I do a deep dive rewatching the entire run of a character or a show to dialogue with the entirety of the character(s) I’m spotlighting.  But this is different.  As I began rewatching Xena I had so many thoughts and so many feelings and just allllllllllllllllllllllll the memories that trying to develop a thread woven through her entire 134 episodes didn’t flow.  Instead I want to explore the feelings which came back as I watched, reconnecting with the impression Xena left on middle school-aged me as I do a close reading of a few moments from Xena: Warrior Princess’ first season which speak to why she is such a fearless character.

Gabrielle and Xena / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

And who knows?!  Maybe all those other ideas, memories, and feelings will turn into future pieces and Xena will become a regular theme on this site!  Only time will tell I suppose.

Before I sat down to write this piece, I hadn’t seen an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess in over twenty years.  But as soon as I began the first episode it felt like I never stopped.  You know those friends who you can go years without seeing and instantly fall back into rhythm with them when you see each other?  It turns out Xena is that sort of show for me!  As soon as I heard the opening notes from the gaida (the Bulgarian bagpipe) as the theme song began I found myself reciting the narration!  (Yes, it really is a gaida – I did the research)  It all came back to me!

In a time of ancient gods,


and kings,

a land in turmoil cried out for a hero.

She was Xena

A mighty princess forged in the heat of battle.

The power…

The passion…

The danger…

Her courage will change the world.

That intro! Ahhhhh, the memories! / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

As I found myself reciting the above words flawlessly after over twenty years, I noted something I never noticed before (or at least I don’t remember noticing it) – the tense of the words.  It’s all in past tense – “a land in turmoil cried out for a hero,” “a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle,” even framing it as “a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings” speaks to the past – until we get to the end.  “Her courage will change the world.”  How much predicting of the future Joseph LoDuca (who composed the Xena theme song and wrote the lyrics) planned to do here is anyone’s guess.  But he was right!  Xena’s courage did change the world! 

She wasn’t the first female hero to headline a TV series.  She follows in the footsteps of greats like Irish McCalla in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, and Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman.  But Lucy Lawless was groundbreaking in her own right in Xena: Warrior Princess.  The show inspired countless people.  It still has legions of devoted fans (as a little poking around online will show).  And so many future heroes – kickass warrior women in particular – can credit part of their origin to Xena.  Plus, it was a spinoff show which far outshone its predecessor in both fan adoration and cultural scope/influence (Xena was first introduced as a villain then love interest on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys).  And the sapphic nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship – best friends with the flirtatious hint of something more which fans often speculated about – helped pave the way for the beautifully realized relationships we see today, like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on HBO Max’s Harley Quinn.  In an interview with Page Six Renee O’Connor said Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was “baby steps” towards larger change, “I think that the opportunity to be forthright is more evident in all media now.  I just think it would definitely be embraced wholeheartedly.  I’m grateful that people aren’t looking backward.  They just move forward.  People have to break ground, and if that’s what ‘Xena’ was, at the time … yeah, it came at the right moment.”

Bathing together was one of the ways Xena: Warrior Princess danced around the sapphic nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

As a kid I was always intrigued by how – though Xena was a spinoff from Hercules – Xena always seemed tougher.  Like, if my back was against the wall and I had one favor I could call in, I’d want Xena standing beside me over Hercules.  Sure, he’s a demigod and has incredible strength and gauntlets forged by Hephaestus and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  But Xena is Xena.  It always felt like she could stare down an entire army with those steely blue eyes and one arched eyebrow.  Anyone foolish enough to try and fight her anyway was going to live to regret it…if they lived at all.

Her character always seemed comfortable standing among gods, too.  While Hercules was obviously plucked from the myths of Ancient Greece, Xena was created by writer John Schulian and writer-director-producer Robert Tapert.  As a kid I devoured mythology.  For Christmas in 1994, Mom and Dad got me D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a hardcover illustrated tour through Greek mythology.  I read that thing again and again and again.  The following year they got me D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants as well and books on Celtic mythology soon followed.  I could tell you those stories forwards and backwards (which…I guess it’s not really surprising I grew up to study and teach religious studies).  Xena was so strong, so bold, so commanding, so much larger than life that it always felt like she belonged among the goddesses, gods, monsters, and historical figures she crossed paths with.  She could certainly more than hold her own.  Her story captured my heart in the same way those well-read books of myths did, too.

Ares, the God of War, tries to temp Xena back into his service. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

Sure, the show could be campy.  That’s part of why I loved it!  The overly acrobatic fight scenes.  The gale-force whooshing sounds of swords.  The murmuring of crowds with a few distinct phrases clearly called out to let the viewer know what they thought.  That thing she’d do where she’d run in a circle – in midair – keeping herself aloft by kicking her adversaries in the chest.  The fact that her chakram (oh! my! gosh! her chakram!!!!!) followed the same physics as Captain America’s shield.  And of course there was that one time she literally juggled a baby while fighting King Gregor’s men to protect the child from being killed because of a misread prophecy.  The thing with Xena was, even in all the camp, she was an absolute badass! 

The idea that she was always the most lethal person in a room, capable of felling dozens of trained killers by herself always felt authentic.  Her threat and skill, her ferocity and power never felt filtered through or lessened by the camp (which wasn’t the case for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys).  Again and again we hear how Xena lead one of the largest armies the world had ever known, sweeping over the land and conquering all in her path.  We see how the mere mention of her name – let alone starring into her piercing eyes – is enough to make any warlord or arms dealer falter.  The fact that she unfailingly radiated that aura while juggling a baby when fighting or having acrobatic duals on elevated balancing beams three times in the first ten episodes just shows how much of a badass she was.

Xena’s arc on Hercules saw her debut as his adversary, the warrior princess with the aforementioned army, before leaving that life behind, inspired by Hercules’ model (“The Warrior Princess” S1E9, “The Gauntlet” S1E12, and “Unchained Heart” S1E13).  So when Xena: Warrior Princess begins, Xena has abandoned her warlord ways and is beginning her own quest for redemption.

Xena’s chakram, sword, and battle armor and leather, as she prepares to bury it and leave her fighting life behind. She soon picks them back up again in the service of defending the innocent. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

The theme song reflects this, too!  In my research to figure out what sort of instrument opens the theme song, I also learned – in addition to the spoken English narration – there is Bulgarian chanting happening over the music!  If you’d like to see they lyrics in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet, here you go:

Жената язди самотна / Zhenata yazdi samotna
Нейното минало срази я / Neinoto minalo srazi ya
Срещу войските от тъмен свят / Sreshtu voiskite ot tumen sviyat
Воюва за добро тя/ Vouva za dobro tya

Рогови звънове идват / Rogovi zvanove idvat
Напрейте път на война / Napreyte pat na voyina!
Тъпани бият в ритъм / Tapani biyat va ritam
Принцесата е пак тука / Princesata ye pak tuka!

And if you’re curious what the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir is saying, its English translation is:

The woman rides alone,
(Her) past nearly crushed her,
Meeting the armies of the dark world,
Battling in the name of good.

The sound of horns is coming,
Make way for the battle,
Drums beat at (the) rhythm,
(The) Princess is here.

Incidentally, learning this really feels like coming full circle for me.  In 2007 I was flying to England for two weeks to visit a friend doing her student teaching in Bognor Regis.  In the Detroit Airport, waiting for the red eye flight to London, I met Yana – a Bulgarian girl about my age who was also travelling alone.  We chatted for a few hours at our gate and moved seats to sit together for our eight hour flight.  Yana was a nervous flier so she asked me to stay awake with her, not falling asleep unless she did first.  We talked and laughed and told stories all night long.  At one point she showed me the Bulgarian romance novel she was reading and asked me to try and pronounce the words.  It…did not go well XD.  I didn’t even recognize the alphabet!  But I tried until Yana just read to me.  We lasted as long as we could but ultimately fell asleep, arms wrapped around each other, somehow contorted so the plane seats didn’t make it uncomfortable.  We slept together until the sun gently woke us by poking through the window.  It was one of the most unique nights of my life.  And NOW I’ve finally learned some Bulgarian!  Back to Xena…

Xena is cast out by the townspeople who fear her despite her just saving them. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

So much of the first season sees people cowering when they realize it’s Xena the Warrior Princess standing in their midst.  Townspeople fear her.  Travelers flee from her on the road.  And the warlords, rulers, and arms dealers she meets in her travels regard her as a worthy peer, dangerous threat, or both.  But it’s her reputation as one of the leaders of the “armies of the dark world” which breeds these reactions, a reputation she is trying to change.  “The woman rides alone / (Her) past nearly crushed her” though now she is opposing those “armies of the dark world / Battling in the name of good.”  What I love about those lyrics (which I just learned! ahhh! learning is so fun!) is how they speak to the weight of her past.  She’s trying to be better now, to devote her life to helping people, but the shadow she cast is not an easy one to get out from under.  Yet she is dedicated to trying all the same.

When we talk about fearless characters, that’s a pretty tall order.  Her greatest enemy is her past and, despite all the evil she’s done and death she’s reigned down on the innocent and warlike alike, she believes she can change.  Xena believes she can be better!  Xena believes she can become the best version of herself!  That sort of character complexity was something we didn’t see on Xena’s sister show Hercules and I think it’s one of the reasons Xena: Warrior Princess gained such a larger fan following then and now.  In addition to showing incredible courage, this act is also one of the pieces of her character which make Xena so inspiring to so many people.

Most, if not all of us, have parts which are burdened with shame, parts which are burdened with guilt, parts which are burdened with regret, and even polarized parts at war with other parts within us.  Xena looks at all of that within herself and believes she can grow, heal, change, and transcend.  She believes in the best version of herself and then she lives it into existence.  How can that not resonate with us?!!?  That journey inward – to touch those parts burdened with shame, guilt, and regret and then begin to heal them in a way which allows transformation – is scary.  In being willing to attempt this journey and then succeeding in her transformation Xena models a remarkable courage.  We’re drawn to this part of her character, I think.  Most, if not all of us, seek similar courage in our own lives.  Xena inspires us because she has this courage and she inspires us to believe we can touch it within ourselves as well.

Xena meets her old ally, Marcus. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

When Xena attempts to free the Princess Jana (Nicola Cliff) from her kidnapper Mezentius (Stephen Tozer), a ruthless arms dealer, she encounters Marcus (Bobby Hosea), an old ally and lover from her warlord days.  Alone in one of Mezentius’ weapons stores, Marcus challenges Xena.  He knows she’s changed and what she’s trying to do…and he tells her how he tried to leave this life once, too.  You can see the pain and torment on his face, conjured by the memories of what led him to leave and the guilt over what led him back.

Xena – “Come with me now.  How many of us are left from the old days?  Most of them are dead.  Marcus, I don’t want to stand by your grave.”

Marcus – “You’re not better than me, Xena.”

Xena – “You’re right.”

Marcus – “What makes you think I want to?”

Xena – “What made you think you wanted to?  Marcus, it is so simple.  You do one thing – one good thing – for no other reason than you know it’s right.  That’s the first step.”

Xena doesn’t just believe in her own potential to transform, she sees it in others as well.  In Marcus, she sees someone like herself, someone who needs a path to follow to become who they want to be.  And Xena offers him one.  What a beautiful model, too!  If we are seeking similar courage in our own lives, if we want to be better, to be different, to transform in some way, that’s all it takes.  One thing.  One act.  One step.  Then it grows from there.

When I think of Xena’s fearlessness, there are obvious moments of courage.  We see her running into battle regardless of the odds to protect those who need protecting, standing face-to-face with the roughest and most brutal of men traversing Ancient Greece and not even blinking, and of then we see her intimidating those very men!  But to my mind, the moment of courage which stands equal to her faith in her ability to find redemption and rise above the sins of her past to be transformed, is her friendship with Gabrielle.

When they first meet, Gabrielle tries to convince Xena to take her with her. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

I’m not going to explore the sapphic nature of their relationship beyond what I said above.  It’s beautiful and it’s important and it was groundbreaking in so many ways, but to explore and celebrate all that in a way worthy of it, I’d need to look at the entirety of the show.  It is, perhaps, the story for another piece.  What I mean by the courage Xena demonstrates in her friendship with Gabrielle here is how she lets her in in the first place.

While on the road to redemption, Xena is coming from a dark place.  She is the Warrior Princess.  She road at the head of a fearsome army.  She conquered and killed in a way few could, a way which leads Ares (Kevin Smith), the God of War, to attempt to woe her back.  He offers her the largest army the world has ever seen, encouraging her to bring justice by conquest and offering her the chance to rule the Earth as his Warrior Queen.[8]  The people she ran with were rarely nice, many were overtly evil, and a great many of them are now dead.  It’s safe to assume Xena doesn’t have the best track record with loving, caring, mutually symbiotic relationships where you are seen, heard, and accepted just as you are, and you in turn see, hear, and accept the other in the same way.  Where would she even have had the chance to practice such a relationship in her adult life so far?

It’s clear she doesn’t want Gabrielle to travel with her either, despite Gabrielle pleading with Xena to take her with her after Xena saves Gabrielle’s village from the warlord Draco (Jay Laga’aia).  Gabrielle wants nothing to do with the boring life of a farming village or being married off to a man she doesn’t love.  Xena refuses, leaving the village without Gabrielle.  However, Gabrielle follows Xena and keeps at it.  By episode’s end, Xena’s agrees to let Gabrielle travel with her.[9]

Xena and Gabrielle listen to someone who’s approached them in a bar, seeking their help. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

Gabrielle grows from sidekick and tagalong to best friend and trusted confidant.  And yes, Gabrielle has a lot to do with it.  She isn’t one to take “no” for an answer to begin with and she chats tirelessly (as someone who does the same, I get it – I always want to know more! share with me all your thoughts and feelings! I love hearing it!).  Gabrielle’s growth over the first season is remarkable on its own.  But Xena lets her in.  That’s 100% Xena’s choice and Xena’s doing.  No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise sometimes, we can’t control other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.  So Gabrielle does her part but Xena meets her there.  Xena has the courage to let her walls down, to open up, to trust.  Gabrielle is willing to receive that, to be a loving steward of what Xena shares with her (slowly at first), just as Xena does for Gabrielle.  It’s so beautiful!

It takes courage, too.  Nothing has the potential to hurt us quite like the people we love the most.  So the more people we let into our lives and into our hearts, the greater the chance we have to be hurt and the larger the degree of hurt they can cause.  Every loving relationship is a risk.  Not everyone is willing or even able to open themselves to that sort of connection (and that’s fine – there’s no judgment here – everyone’s on their own journey and comes to it in their own time).  Fresh on her road to redemption, which is incredibly courageous in its own right, Xena finds the courage to open herself to Gabrielle and begin building what will be the most important relationship of her life


Gabrielle and Xena together in…Season 5, I think. / Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: Warrior Princess

Xena’s courage did change the world.  We see it in the lasting effect her character and this show has had on pop culture and on the hearts and minds of those who love her.  Xena’s courage also has the power to change our world now, if we can touch it in our own lives.  If we are willing to believe the best in ourselves is possible, if we are willing to open ourselves up to the life-defining love of friendships like what Xena and Gabrielle share – knowing they may bring pain at times but that the pain is worth it and we can grow and move through it together – we, too, can be transformed as Xena was.  We are transformed in our hearts which then transforms our world.  I love you, dear reader, and I believe you have the courage to bring such beautiful change to your own life whenever you may need it, just as I believe I have the power to do so in my own life – just like Xena taught me.

Happy International Women’s Day!  Be sure to check back here through the month of March – as well as following Kalie’sNancy’s, and Jeff’s sites – to see which character everyone else chose to celebrate this year.  Thank you, too, for taking this little journey down Memory Lane with me.  If you’re curious, I am still taking my time and savoring my rewatch of Xena: Warrior Princess and I am loving each episode as much now as I did when I watched them in middle school.  When it comes to heroic archetypes in my life, I’m lucky to have Xena among them.

Photo Credit – Renaissance Pictures’ Xena: The Warrior Princess

Header pic from Screen Rant

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Eleven

Season Eleven is longer than usual, since it contained repeats from past seasons, although it was bookended by new episodes. I never thought I’d say this- but I was let down this season. I realize that IRL LeVar is a busy man (I am so happy that the third season of Star Trek: Picard will have him and the original Star Trek: The Next Generation crew in it!) but I was disappointed to have six remixed episodes in the middle be repeats from previous seasons.

I Was a Teenage Space Jockey by Stephen Graham Jones

In this interesting magical realism tale, two Native American sixth graders get bullied at an arcade and end up locked in for the night. One of them, who is worried that his older brother has left home and could have come to an untimely end, seems to get sucked into one of the video games where he sees different fates for his brother. The game ends well, giving him hope that his brother is alive. This short story was very realistic about racism and challenging family dynamics but then took a small magical detour towards the end

#ClimbingNation by Kim Fu

When a popular Instagram climber falls to his death, a former college classmate of his attends his funeral. April had followed him and felt a kinship although she lies about the level of their real-world connection to his friends and family. Worming her way into the inner circle, she sows seeds of discontent among them, especially when it is revealed he might have had a stash of gold that he was hiding at a remote cabin. This was a disquieting story, showing the fraudulent nature of connection between “celebrities” and those that follow them.

Down in the Dim Kingdoms by Tobias Buckell

Set in an alternative future, a secret civilization in the middle of our Earth has been discovered and exploited by two explorers. About fifty years later, one of the original colonizers gets a nasty comeuppance when he rewards his evil granddaughter’s behavior, and she turns on him. This was an interesting and dark little tale that I quite liked.

Family Cooking by Ana Maria Curtis

A granddaughter with magical cooking skills is tasked with preparing food for her grandmother’s second wedding but finds that her complicated feelings about her Abuela interfere with her magic. I didn’t really get the magical realism angle, but I applauded Isa for caring so much about her mother’s feelings.

The King of Bread by Luis Alberto Urrea

A refreshing detour from fantasy, this is a realistic coming-of-age tale set in the late 1960s (Star Trek is mentioned!). A Mexican-American youth is being raised by a single father after his mother was deported and recounts his life with his father, who drove a bread truck for a living. I enjoyed this bittersweet story of looking back and trying to understand your parents.

River’s Giving by Heather Shaw, Tim Pratt, and River Shaw

Written by a mother, father and teen child team, this is a sweet (but rather saccharine) tale of learning how to have a giving spirit. In this fantasy world, a village is used to receiving mysterious yearly gifts that arrive by the river. When they don’t arrive one year, a young man travels up the nearby mountain to investigate why. He discovers a dragon and teaches him to want to give, not just take. It reminded me of the classic story How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Usual Santas by Mick Herron (originally on S10)

Set in London, eight mall Santas discover a ninth among them at the year-end Christmas Eve party. Is one of them an imposter, or could he be the real Santa? Who then led the crime caper at the mall, in which many gifts were given to orphans and the needy the next day?

The Last Cheng Beng Gift by Jaymee Goh  (originally on S3)

This short story about parental expectations even in the afterlife was a bit of a downer. Mrs. Lin, a Chinese matriarch who resides in the Underworld, is still receiving gifts from her adult children during Cheng Beng, a festival honoring your ancestors. She and her other dead friends still participate in petty jealousies and one-ups in regard to the gifts they receive. Mrs. Lin, in ghostly form, visits her daughter and disapproves of her current life. While Mrs. Lin does reach a better understanding of her daughter, the entire story was rather sobering.

The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar (originally on S2)

Schoolage Anisa is an immigrant from Lebanon whose family now lives in Glasgow, and who is fascinated by owls. She processes her anxiety about her father who still travels to his family’s war-torn region and the memories she has of home by studying predatory owls. While she briefly rejects her family’s background and Arabic language, by the end she is starting to accept her heritage and becomes more comfortable with herself. This was an engaging short story about embracing your culture.

The Simplest Equation by Nicky Drayden (originally on S5)

A sweet tale of love. Two students sit near each other in a college math class, and Mariah hopes that this new alien girl Quallah, whose species are known for their math skills, can help tutor her. The two get to know one another and fall in love, but then Quallah gets an offer to go off-world to study so Mariah uses math equations to build her a declaration of her feelings. The unique conclusion proved that the simplest equation is love!

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison (originally on S8)

A young boy stops in a diner and is taken under the wing of a waitress there. Thinking he is a runaway she tries to get a few answers from him, but the conversation goes sideways when he reveals he is an alien observing Earth before a nuclear war happens and a time loop occurs. Their conversation is sweet and the ending reveals that perhaps there is a chance for Earth after all.

The Foster Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut (originally on S6)

The Foster Portfolio, set in 1951, was a fascinating peek into human nature. A young investment counselor meets the modest Foster family to help them with their finances and discovers the husband is sitting on a huge inheritance that he is keeping from his wife. The repressed husband is intent on providing for his family with his own labors and doesn’t wish to touch the money, despite having to work two jobs and pinch pennies to afford things for his wife and son. He wants to honor his mother who sacrificed for his family when his father left his family to play the piano and get drunk in bars. This all seems decent until you find out he is hiding a double life from his wife- but it’s not what you would think. The ending made me think of secrets in a marriage, and the judgments we place on our children and spouses, and how some obligations can become warped if not addressed. You must watch this delightful 2017 short movie (19 min) adaptation of the story:

Wok Hei St by Guan Un

This clever title can be read as Wok Heist or Wok Hei Street, both of which have meaning to the story. This magical realism tale is set in Malaysia during a televised cooking competition when a cherished wok is stolen from one of the contestants, and a man with some magical powers who owes the first contestant favors retrieves it for her from the other dishonest chef.

The Lady of the Yellow-Painted Library by Tobi Ogundiran

I hated this story, for it made librarians look evil and crazed. A traveling salesman mislays a book, and the supernatural librarian is bent on retrieving it. Predictable ending.

The Golden Hour by Jeffrey Ford

Haunting time travel story about a married couple who get separated from one another during their travels. The elderly man awaits his wife to find him again, and in the meantime is befriended by a writer, who harbors his own mysteries. The explanation of time travel was unique and the narrative has several layers to be thought about once you are finished with the story.

Mister Dawn, How Can You Be So Cruel? by Violet Allen

Sometime in the near future, dreams can be controlled, so the rich hire dream concierges to give them a perfect fantasy of their choosing. Esther is quite good and is hired away by a rival company where she gets to develop new software to reach more customers. But this new company turns out to be morally corrupt, and when Esther finds out what her dream research might be truly used for, she puts on blinders so she can keep her research money and keep on working on her pet project.

The Destination Star by Gregory Marlow

In this tender story, a generational ship is traveling towards a far-away planet to save humanity, but without warp drive, it will take many generations to arrive. Ben is an older man who does maintenance on the ship and he reminisces about his early years on the ship and when it was revealed to him and his peers that they would be a generation that would live their entire lives on the ship. He has come to accept the bittersweet truth that they need to work for the greater good, although they will never reap the benefits themselves. In the end, LeVar ties it into how many generations of slaves never experienced freedom, but they had to go on living their lives and raising future generations having faith that there would be a better tomorrow for the descendants.

D.P. by Kurt Vonnegut

Set in Germany a decade or so after WWII, a bi-racial orphan wonders about his parentage, especially because the local villagers have nicknamed him Joe Lewis, after a famous boxer from America. When a group of American soldiers is camped nearby, the boy steals away to meet them, hoping his father is one of the soldiers. A Black soldier takes pity on him, recognizing the boy feels like a displaced person (hence the title of the story) and treats him kindly before returning him to the orphanage. A poignant story that makes me want to read Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, which also includes The Foster Portfolio.

Down in the Dim Kingdom, I was a Teenage Space Jockey, #ClimbingNation, and The Destination Star were my favorites of the season.  I suggest you check out his podcast if you haven’t already, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

A Sliver of Darkness

I loved this horror short story collection by C.J. Tudor! Several of the stories are set in a post-apocalyptic world, and the author pulls you into each story with realistic details but then capably takes you in a new direction.

End of the Liner

In an apocalyptical future, most of humanity has survived on cruise ships, for those who had been rich enough to afford to do so. Fifty years have passed on a Disney-esque ship, and Leila reminisces about her rebel daughter Addison who abandoned the ship and tried to make it to shore, not knowing what awaited her there. Leila and the other survivors are forced to conform and are always watched, but are given an unrealistic but safe environment. When Addison reappears to whisk Laila away to land, Laila realizes perhaps the artificiality of the ship is better than the hard reality of life on shore.

The Block

A group of foolish British teens break into an abandoned apartment building and discover an otherworldly horror.

Runaway Blues

A widowed man reminisces about his courtship years in the 1970s and how he and his girlfriend (later wife) would frequent a blues bar for the music. An unlikely musician befriends them, and the couple later suspects the singer of killing his girlfriend when she cheats on him. There is a twist at the end, but wait, there is yet another nasty surprise in the last paragraph!

The Completion

A narcissistic realtor thinks he has the deal of a century when he believes an old man will sell his property to him to be redeveloped. There is an odd reveal at the end, and I was unsatisfied with how this young man seemed to escape justice.

The Lion at the Gate

A group of teens see a lion mural and discover it comes to life. Not all the friends survive.


Gloria is a character found in the book The Hiding Place written earlier by the author. She is a hit-woman who retains a bit of morality, although the ending is ambiguous as to what decision she will make regarding her newest assignment. This story makes me want to check out the novel!

I’m Not Ted

This story has a Twilight Zone vibe, as a man is given chance after chance to make the right decision.

Final Course

A widowed father is invited to a country estate by an old college friend and he and his blind daughter join his friends in this murder mystery story. The father and daughter duo are hiding a very dark secret.

The Copy Shop

An unsatisfied wife discovers a special shop that makes copies that are even better than the original. I was pleased that this story was on the lighthearted side, instead of giving the reader an ugly conclusion.


A seaside vacation for a jilted woman turns out to be quite hellish, as a dark reason for her being there is revealed.

Butterfly Island

In a post-apocalyptic world, some survivors think a nearby island might be the sanctuary they need. Two boatloads of adventurers head out, but of course, the island is not what they expected. The survivors are faced with a no-win situation and grapple with the few choices left to them. The author indicated that she plans to turn this unfinished short story into a novella. I was intrigued- so I hope she does asap.

I love discovering new (to me) authors, so I will certainly be checking out other books by her!

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