On Television 1: Gravity Falls


Methinks there’s been a little too much philosophy and not enough stupid around here lately. So I’m going to talk about cartoons.

You know, the smartest shows on television.

Gravity Falls is available in its entirety on Hulu. If you have access then go watch it and then come back and read this. Either that or just don’t complain about Spoilers because YES, HERE THEY COME.

On the one hand, Gravity Falls is a collection of Young Adult fiction tropes– youthful protagonists, weird parental situations, romantic interests, coming of age. On the other taloned appendage, this show manages to combine a some very unusual components in some very unusual ways. Trappings of horror, adventure, romance, pulp, magic, geekery and mystery. At its heart it’s a show about family, growing up, happiness, escape, forgiveness, sacrifice, good, evil and love. Also real cool versus the teenage substitute for cool, which doesn’t really fit into the above list, but is a subject I’m happy to see popping up in cartoons. Seriously, the teenage substitutes for genuine things are the worst.

It does all of the above while also doing something even more important: Gravity Falls is not just deep but spectacularly funny. Humor– the only substance that transforms the rubber mallet of melodrama into the feather duster of truth.

The real key to this show is family. This is so central to the show that I can’t talk about Gravity Falls without talking about siblings, generations, loyalty, rivalry– the building blocks of familial reality.  The show centers around two sets of twins, both based in a tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. One pair– the Great Uncles– are the protagonists of the past.

Seen here, almost being petty enough to doom the world.

Our heroes, being petty enough to doom the world.

Complimentary opposites, Stanley and Stanford were incredibly close until their differences, societal expectations, and a series of mutual mistakes tore them apart– almost literally since their relationship ended with one of them being thrown into a nightmare dimension for 30 years. It was nobody’s fault– except for both of them. It was both of their faults. Oops. As a result the remaining twin spends the next 30 years working as a small-time tourist trap con man by day, and trying to reconstruct his brother’s impossible physics engines by night, a never-ending attempt to rescue his brother.

The protagonists of the present, Dipper and Mabel, are also opposites– mystery-obsessed nerd and cuteness obsessed glitter-child, respectively–but form an unbeatable team when they come together on a project. Zombies, robot lake monsters, corrupt police,extra-dimensional chaos gods– two kids with no special powers convincingly take down all comers. The absurdist horror setting helps sell the concept– zombies can be defeated by perfect three-part harmony, giant gnomes by leaf blowers, giant robots by nothing but courage and pluck. That said, it’s the similarity between the two pairs of twins– the once and future heroes– that creates the show’s unexpected central tension. Are Mabel and Dipper going to always be there for each other? Or will they grow apart or turn on each other as adolescence and adulthood transform them into unfamiliar beings? Even though the kids battle/are stalked by shapeshifters, gnomes, insane Halloween (okay, fine, Summerween) spirits and yes a LITERAL CHAOS GOD this is their greatest threat and greatest fear.


Tentacled demons are bad but growing up is made of pain.

The relationships between the older generation and the younger is almost equally important. Both uncles are obviously flawed and obviously loving guardians, in that messed up way that fictional guardians who put kids in danger often are. Their love for their niece and nephew is ultimately the magnet that brings the two uncles together in spite of their pettiness. And, you know, saves the world.

That same love is also the force that forged the word “Grunkle,” 2012’s finest contributions to the English language.

The rest of the twins’ family is rounded out by wise loser handyman Soos, who acts as an older sibling for both of the twins, and by virtual older sis/Dipper’s crush Wendy whose mysterious competence and low-level bad girl hijinks never stop being fun.

Of course, outside of friends and allies there are always enemies. All families have them– if you look hard enough– and all heroes need them. Even though the town of Gravity Falls, OR is populated with weird monsters it’s the human enemies that keep returning to have emotional effects on Mabel and Dipper. Okay– there is one monster with terrifying emotional impact and staying power, a Masonic pyramid of malice, Chaotic Evil to his core. But we’ll get to Bill Cipher. Yes we will.



The human nemeses are important because they’re handled differently on Gravity Falls than on almost any other show. Dipper has Robbie,Wendy’s (rightfully) jealous sometime boyfriend and insecure emo jerk. Mabel has Pacifica Northwest, rich pretty mean girl who humiliates her competition into submission. The Great Uncles have… each other, really. And the entire family is threatened by creepy imp-child Gideon Gleeful, a shyster with actual magic power who is willing sell his own soul in order to gain more.

Wittle ole me?

Wittle ole me?

And in each case– even with an apparent monster like Gideon– the Pines family deals with their enemies by forgiving them and moving on. Better than nuking them from orbit, forgive your enemies– it’s the only way to be sure. I admire this approach, treating the bad guys like people, not things. It’s not like they’re demons or something. The only other show I can think of with a hero who wins by forgiving is Steven Universe. This is naught but the highest praise.

Speaking of demons, there are plenty of them in Gravity Falls– in particular an intelligent monster that cannot be redeemed or forgiven, the eye in the pyramid, the thing that should not be spoken to– Bill Cipher.


Told ya I’d be back.

Bill’s a wonderful adversary and left a lasting mark on my psyche from his first appearance on the show. He’s the simplest cartoon on the show– a combination of geometry and stick figures– but also the most terrifying monster. You can’t take him seriously until you’re forced to. Gleefully voiced by show creator Alex Hirsch, Bill is almost always funny, but it doesn’t detract from the dread his presence lends to every scene he appears in. He’s a demon that exists only in the mind, and yet there’s almost nothing his malevolence can’t accomplish. He’s a literal Faustian devil, making bargains that always harm his “partners” while giving Bill exactly what he wants via creative wording. He manipulates and destroys out of malice and boredom, but also tirelessly works towards his single goal– complete domination of the physical universe. He is literally two-dimensional, but also fully realized.

I– I love him.

I love that this show commits so fully to its concepts– forgiveness, family, perfect evil, imperfect good. There are rumors of a season 3, but the show’s climax and denouement are so perfect, I’d hate to see that happen. Don’t mess with transcendent success.

Unless it’s, like, your job and stuff, series creator Alex Hirsch. But seriously, it’s like writing a sequel to A Tale of Two Cities or something. It felt so good to see a series with a perfect ending.


On Morality 3: Bad Judgement

Ah, NPR… why you always making me think?

The above link is to an article about how we, as a society, judge parents for exposing their children to entirely imaginary risks. Letting kids play in parks by themselves, putting kids in cars before we return our shopping carts to the store. Leaving a kid at home alone when we can’t find a baby sitter. Choosing between watching our kids and having a job. It’s not just a think piece (like this is) but an overview of and interview with the authors of a recent study; it illuminates a lot of interesting problems.

We’ve know for a long time that humans, as a species, are terrible at risk assessment. We think things we do every day, like driving cars, are safe. We’re afraid of things that hardly ever kill anyone, like airplanes and sharks– which is why I have to remind myself how safe I am every time I board a plane or ride a shark.

We figure this will be safe. Or we don't. Hard to say which is worse.

We figure this will be safe. Or we don’t. Hard to say which is worse.

What the University of California, Irvine study shows is that the problem is even worse than we thought. We’re not just bad at risk assessment, we think there’s a moral component to it. The over 1,300 participants in the study thought that it was less dangerous for a parent to leave a child alone unintentionally (hit by a bus) than intentionally (had to go to work) and if the interviewers added an element of moral outrage (left their kid alone to visit a lover) then the participants thought the kid was at much greater risk. The actual risks didn’t change, just the circumstances surrounding them. We tend to think bad things happen because people deserve it.

In Judeo-Christian terms, this goes all the way back to Deuteronomic Law– “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son,” that sort of logic. Logic that I should add is completely refuted by The Book of Job, a righteous man who does nothing wrong but loses everything– he even watches his family die– purely because God and Satan are hanging out and gambling in Heaven. It’s a compelling story of an unjust universe, but somehow humanity has never moved past this idea that people must be sowing everything they ever reap. It appeals to our gut, and guts are hard for ideas and facts to argue with.

The Internet, great gift that it is, has also become a breeding ground for public shaming. One wrong tweet and– because The Internet never forgets– a person’s life can be ruined. Under extraordinary circumstances, a family loses their home in order to save their child’s life after both their satellite phone and their ship’s radio fails them… and The Internet’s rage descends upon them before any of the facts are actually known. Of course, the facts didn’t matter– taking an infant and a toddler on a months-long sea voyage seemed like an immoral risk to people who (like myself) know nothing about sailing.

Reality is not objective. It’s one of the great problems with advocating a reality-based approach to morality. In the Age of the Internet it’s especially true that anyone and everyone can find a comforting set of facts that support their carefully nurtured presumptions and and prejudices. When we’d rather feel right than be right– most of the time– Truthiness conquers Truth, Self-Righteousness replaces Right, and so forth. For many people the belief that they have a monopoly on reality is the problem, the reason they go forth and harm people that fail to conform to their vision.

The thing is, these aren’t plays being put on to test our moral judgement. These are people’s lives, and we’re not asking “who am I helping?” I can’t know why people make the choices they do, but it feels like self-righteousness and pride. That’s a shitty reason for a kid to be taken from a loving home and placed with Social Services.

It reminds me Sandy Hook and 9/11 Truthers, of Westboro Baptist protesting at American soldiers’ funerals– people that have long since exchanged facts for feelings, people who have stopped thinking about the individuals they are hurting as ‘people.’ People I automatically assume that I’m better than, that I tend to dismiss without any sympathy or human consideration.

I guess that’s why the idea of secret Lizard People undermining our society remains popular among the conspiracy-minded in our population. It’s the same reason that old women were accused of witchcraft and lynched– excuse me, and still are. It’s easy to feel superior to literal monsters and no one has to worry about the monsters getting hurt.

By User:Gojifan99 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32173893

“I have feelings, you know.”

When people do bad things, it’s never for no reason. It’s usually for bad reasons, reasons they fabricated, reasons built on imagination instead of facts. I’m kind of a hyperrational guy; I make the mistake of thinking I can float above emotional stuff, like Sapphire on Steven Universe. 



I think of things like  information literacy as moral imperatives. None of that makes me immune to the above tendencies, of course. I tell myself stories where I’m the hero. We all do.

That’s why taking that moment to consider whether what we’re doing is actually heroic is crucial. Who does it help? Who does it hurt? Shame has a long history but how often has it helped anyone? Make no mistake, shame has a body county, too. Shame has killed more people than most ideas and feelings.

If you want people to be better then jog their imaginations with your own good behavior. Show them how good they could be. Trying to force morality on people, via shame, threat, or violence is a dark path. But that’s a topic for another post– where evil comes from. Even as a believer in a supernatural universe, evil strikes me as a wholly human creation. And I think it starts from trying to make everyone else “objectively” right and good.

On Morality 2: Substitute Heroes

Perfection is a terrible substitute for reality.

That’s what I need to keep in mind on days like this, days when I’m not satisfied, days when I’m not feeling it. Days like today.

Perfection is for eulogies, when we forget the person we loved and idealize the idea of that person.

Perfection is the realm of ideas, of concepts, of hopes. And when we get confused about which things are real we get in trouble. Mileage may very, the trouble may be deep or shallow, but it’s always trouble.

There’s this Funny Super Hero team, The Legion of Substitute Heroes. Decades before The Tick introduced us to Four-Legged Man and Sarcastro, they were a team comprised entirely of members whose powers were so questionable that even the Legion of Super Heroes wouldn’t accept them. The Legion accepted such luminaries of questionableness as Matter-Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy into their ranks, so being a Substitute Hero is a kind of inverse achievement.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

Inverse. Achievement. Unlocked.

There are some stories where the Substitute Heroes save the day, because of course there are. A guy whose arms can pop off or an oddball who can turn into a (immobile) rock are still easily distinguishable from the heroes you want, need, or deserve if your day needs saving.

If only things were so easy in the real world.

Day to day, I find myself confused by a bewildering array of substitutes for reality. The Internet, webcomics email, Netflix– they aren’t just time wasters. They provide the illusion of accomplishment. I’m a completionist, so even watching another episode in a web series feels like a kind of achievement. It’s something on my internal ‘to do’ list, something I’ve been meaning to do, something with no real impact on myself or anything else. It’s easy to do, and nearly impossible to do incorrectly.

It’s a closed system where nothing of any value is accomplished. It’s perfect. And since I’m one of those people who regularly feels like doing stuff is a burden, that finishing anything should get me off the hook from having to do anything else…it’s a very effective substitute for life.

I like games– no, I love games!– for very similar reasons. You can learn a lot from games but the stakes are typically low. They provide simulations of tactics, strategies, adventures, even other worlds and all they typically ask for is your time. They also provide good excuses to bond with other people; the shared experience is often the only direct benefit you get from a game. Which is good. Friendship is never perfect but it’s always good.

A good game, of course, is very nearly perfect– complicated but finite, difficult but comprehensible. I’m starting to believe that perfection is the first symptom of illusion, of unreality. Given time, the perfect is always replaced by the epically flawed, poorly written reality we all share. It’s not a happy conclusion, but it is a useful one.

There’s no such thing as a neutral life. If we’re not doing good then we are consuming, using up resources that someone else needs. It’s not my duty as a human to judge anyone, begrudge anyone food or health care, but there is a cost underlying every human life. If we’re trying to create something, give something back, then things get better for the world as a whole. We get better. It’s not a perfect system, so I figure it’s probably real enough to work.

I like to think of us– humanity– as flawed heroes, silly but striving, capable of unexpected victories and unanticipated depths. We don’t do good because we’re the Justice League, judging the world from our satellite. We do good in spite of ourselves, in spite of our very unlikely talents, in spite of the fact we were never built to win.

When did the Substitute Heroes become so real?

On Heroes 3: Plumbing the Depths of Funny

I’ve been doing more research on Funny Heroes for my panel at Coeur d’Con on Saturday, August 13 (1:30pm). I’ve always believed in the power of comedy but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There’s treasure buried here.

It’s common knowledge, both for nerds and norms, that Superman’s appearance in Action Comics #1 (April 1938) marked the advent of the superhero. Nothing quite like him had ever been seen before– though the ancient Greek hero Herakles might beg to differ. That said, the costume, the powers, the comics medium– it was a potent combination that set the stage for all the superhuman heroes that followed him.

Not for the comics superhumans that preceded him, though.

Two major funny heroes graced the funny pages before The Man of Steel rewrote the book on comic books. Al Capp’s L’il Abner’s super strength and resilience probably had some influence on the Man of Steel. However, what I’d overlooked up until this point is that the king of the funny heroes preceded The Man of Tomorrow by almost 10 years.

Adventures of Popeye by Segar, E. C.

He is what he is.

Popeye lacks some of the traditional superheroic qualities. He doesn’t wear a costume– sailor suits don’t count if you’re an actual sailor– or conceal his identity. He doesn’t have a mission statement– the closest thing he has to Batman’s oath to wage war on crime or Green Lantern’s pledge is his simple “I yam what I yam.” He’s so small and homely that other characters frequently make fun of him and he has a kind of negative sex appeal built into his DNA. When not directly confronting evil he loses his moral compass. And yeah, when he’s not actively adventuring he’s basically a shiftless bum.

But his appearance in Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929 was an important way station on the way towards the creation of the superhero. Popeye is super strong, nearly indestructible,and he hates bullies. He’s kind to animals, loyal to a fault, and he loves to fight. He looks out for the little guy and he’s utterly fearless, constantly seeking out danger and adventure. And, outside of the formulaic animations most people know him from, he almost NEVER CARED ABOUT SPINACH!

Sorry to shout. It was just a stupidly unfunny thing for the cartoons to fixate on. I should probably schedule a compare/contrast article on the differences between Segar’s newspaper strips and the cartoons. Little known fact: Olive Oyl, the perpetual hostage/victim in almost every one of the Sailor’s animated adventures (premiering in 1932, 8 years before Batman introduced the first super-kidnappable teen sidekick in 1940) was actually a badass in the comics. Yes, Popeye sometimes rescued her, and yes she screamed for help a lot, but a lot of the fights ended with her assailants hollering while she punched the poop out of them… while they both screamed for help.

That’s what they call a digression, isn’t it? I digressed.

Even not considering his probable influence on (Superman’s creators) Schuster and Siegel, Popeye’s influence on humor and adventure comics would be profound. Characters and creations as diverse as Asterix and Obelix, Dick Tracy, Uncle Scrooge and Terry and the Pirates owe clear debts to the grotesque nautical hero– I’d include Tintin as well, but it turns out he premiered exactly one week before Popeye, on January 10, 1929. Must have been something in the transatlantic water supply.

As a prototype for superheroes Popeye’s especially interesting because he’s also a kind of super-loser. He always ends up on top of his villains, sure, but Popeye’s status quo is profoundly depressing; the Great Depression was looming when he was created but even before the bottom fell out of the market it was hard to imagine Popeye as a guy with a real future. He’s practically homeless and completely unambitious; he has gambling problems and while he frequently earns or is rewarded large sums of money, he also immediately loses any cash he finds… or, demonstrating a kind of pathological generosity, gives it away and starts sponging off of his friends again. It took literal years before his most famous love, Olive Oyl, deigned to notice him and even then she had trouble believing in him. Worse, because of his physical resilience, she felt free to physically abuse him– in a lot of the comics, Popeye actually seems a little afraid of Olive. It’s weird stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the first Funny Superhero. It’s not like anyone keeps clear records on things like this, but there are several contenders. Captain Marvel, for example, brought a sense of whimsy to his adventures that I’ve always loved… but he didn’t show up until 1940. Plastic Man is an even later arrival– 1941. Funny animal The Terrific Whatzit? 1944. I thought it was Johnny Thunder– an incompetent with godlike powers, let me take this opportunity to dub Johnny Thunder inspirational for everyone from Inspector Gadget to Bat-Mite– for awhile, with his relatively early appearance in January of 1940.

But no. The first funny superhero appears to have been a fat, vaguely ethnic mom who was inspired by her kids’ adoration of the Green Lantern.

You saw where I was headed with this? Nerd.

You saw where I was headed with this? Nerd.

Ma Hunkel, aka the Golden Age Red Tornado, didn’t just inspire the weird robot hero you saw on Young Justice. She was also likely the first female superhero, first appearing in June of 1939– a full year and a half before Wonder Woman. Like Popeye before her, she started out as a supporting character in a strip with a wider cast (Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly) but her unexpected popularity meant that her adventures soon took over the strip in its entirety. She’s also the second cross-dressing hero, for what it’s worth– her bulky costume meant that she was universally mistaken for a man.

Make no mistake, part of the joke is that Ma Hunkel is a really butch lady who is almost unnaturally strong. And yes, she’s also kind of clumsy, and makes rookie mistakes like falling off a ledge when she’s trying to make an impressive entrance. This is the kind of thing that Frank Miller plays straight in Batman: Year One, though, and I don’t think anyone would argue that the Dark Knight is the butt of the joke there. Most of the time, the funny in Red Tornado adventures comes from the incompetence of the cops and crooks that surround The Red Tornado, and the fact that becoming an accidental superhero kind of takes over Ma Hunkel’s life. People laugh at her weight, call her the “Red Tomato,” but she triumphs through her own effort and competence, with only a little bit of luck in the mixture.

I’ve never thought of Wonder Woman as a step backwards for female heroes before, but when I look at the confident, smart, non-beautiful, and fully-clothed character described above I kind of have to think twice. This is the power of comedy. You can be outwardly ridiculous and not just get away with ideas that people would reject in a serious context, but give an audience the chance to unashamedly love something they might otherwise feel obligated to hate. It’s not like newspaper readers in 1939 were more progressive than comics readers are today (I HOPE?) but I don’t think a serious, respectful book about a cross-dressing fat lady hero would thrive today.

Holy long underwear! Funny business can be serious stuff.

On Stories 1: #notallbillionaires

Anthony Trumpet paced the room, glowering in his tailored suit; his hair hovered above him like a straw-colored halo, down from a previously undiscovered bird of prey. Trumpet liked to glower, practiced even when no one else was in the room. He kept a mirror under his spacious desk specifically for glower practice. It was the only way to be sure.

He checked his watch. He’d kept his appointment waiting for 45 minutes– usually a couple hours was the minimum, but he was feeling impatient, which was unacceptable. Impatience is something that happens to people who have to wait, and Tony Trumpet never had to wait. He jammed his thumb down on the intercom button triumphantly, then made a hissing sound as he realized he’d put too much of his considerable weight onto a single digit.

“You all right, Tony?” Ms. Topps buzzed back at him.

“Fine, fine,” he grumbled, not bothering to press the button again. He threw his chair back and lumbered over to the mini-bar. Best to steady his nerves first. This was the deal that could make the difference, really prove what he was worth. Liquid warmth spread through his chest and he allowed himself a brief smile– he practiced those in the mirror too, but not as often. He enjoyed his glowers and smirks more than he did his smiles.

The technicians, when they came in, were not the small men in glasses and cheap suits he had imagined, which brought out his glower again. He didn’t like it when the world willfully defied his imagination. One was a fit, handsome guy in his 40s– dark hair, a well-groomed mustache and beard. He wore a good grey suit casually, with a loose tie and an air of confidence that made it work, and grinned insolently at Trumpet as he extended his hand. Trumpet found himself talking to the man’s thick, natural head of hair.


“Mister Trumpet? Donny Spark. Thanks for inviting us.” Trumpet stared at his hand for several seconds before half-standing and shaking it, making him wait there, cocky grin frozen on his face, letting him feel just stupid enough. Smart guys. Trumpet knew how to handle smart guys.

“You’re the technicians?” he asked, pushing out his lower lip like a stair on a step-stool. His eyes flicked over to the other man doubtfully– a big good-looking black guy wearing a blue suit with no tie. Built, too, looked like ex-military, steely gaze. Since when were tech geeks so… diverse? It was another ploy to shake him, insolence again. He wouldn’t let it get to him.

“Of course we are,” the other man said, seizing Trumpet’s hand, grip cold and firm. “Terrance Rhoads. It’s a pleasure,” he nodded briskly, “sir. We sent over our dossiers, so I assume you’re familiar with our work?”

Trumpet pushed his lower lip out further. “I never read the dossiers. Waste of time. I know everything I need to when I look a man in the eye.”

“Oh?” Donny’s grin stayed friendly as he leaned in. “Then you know that I’m here as a courtesy, Tony.” Trumpet’s teeth ground at the unearned familiarity, but he let the man continue.“Lonesome and I work in exotic energy sources and high end security–”

“Wait, who?” Trumpet broke in, cutting the air with a karate chop.

“Ah. Must not be written on the eyes. We all call Terry ‘Lonesome Rhoads.’” He shrugged, as the black man grinned for the first time. “It’s from an old movie. You like Andy Griffith?”

Trumpet’s eyes bulged. Must be some kind of script to throw him off his game. Smart.

“Right,” Trumpet said, turning his back on them and pausing to throw off their rhythm. “I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted to meet with you two.” He pivoted on his heel dramatically, thrusting a stubby finger in Spark’s face. “I know your secret. You’re the Iron Mask.”


Spark blinked at him; his eyes shifted left and right like he was looking for an invisible audience. “Everyone knows that. I went on national television, there was a press conference, it was a whole thing. Wasn’t it a thing?” He asked Rhoads, who– never breaking eye contact– nodded slowly. “It was a thing.”

He waited for moment, and Trumpet just watched him. The man liked to talk. “It’s really both of us– Lonesome has his own armor, takes the government contracts. He’s made a lot of improvements on my original designs designs.”

“Now when your ass itches you can scratch it,” the black man quipped and Donny nodded then looked quizzical.

“And… don’t you have a telepathic link with a bird?”

Rhoads sighed. “Nah man, that’s the other guy.”

“Okay, cool.”


Trumpet silently processed this information. No secrets. Smart again. Secrets are easy to use. Maybe he should have skimmed the research? Not that it mattered– improvising, pressing on regardless of facts, that’s what made him a winner.

“Partners, huh. Well that’s what I want to talk about.” He paused for effect. “I want in, gentlemen,” he announced breathlessly. The technicians waited politely, exchanged glances, waited some more. Finally Rhoads started talking.

“You… want to invest in The Iron Mask? That’s interesting but–”

“Not invest in. Be a part of,” Trumpet broke in, happy to finally have the chance to interrupt someone. “I want to be the Iron Mask. Also. Not a replacement.”

The silence that followed was thick like storm clouds rolling in from the ocean. He’d expected anything, even laughter– and Trumpet hated other people’s laughter, always suspected it was aimed at him. This was worse, though. Trumpet did not like the way Spark and Rhoads studied him. They’d seemed genial, he realized, but he may have misjudged them. These were serious men. Again, Trumpet waited for one of them to speak. Finally, Spark obliged.

“How would that work, exactly?” he said, speaking too quickly for Trumpet to get an interruption in. Trumpet frowned.

“It’s self explanatory. You give me an Iron Mask suit, I’m a big hero. We’d have to figure some things out, but it’s pretty simple.” Spark twitched a little. Trumpet got the uncomfortable feeling that the man was suppressing a laugh. He played with his phone for a moment, then nodded.

“Mister Trumpet, you’re 70 years old and not exactly a picture of health–”

Trumpet smacked his own chest with an open palm. “I have the best body. The best!”

Spark pressed on. “The G forces flying the suit at speed would probably kill you. Plus you’re a big guy. I’m not sure our current designs could handle your size.” He squinted phone at his while Trumpet seethed internally. Call me fat? No one calls me fat. When I get my armor I’ll knock your headquarters down, I never forget.

“Donny, those are small technical things. I trust you two geniuses to handle that end. You see, being a hero is just like running a business…”

Spark kept reading whatever was on his phone. “Wait, you were beating up smaller kids when you were 16? You’re six foot two, man. That’s… that’s… well, I guess your hands are kinda small, but still–”

“I didn’t push him out the window, he fell!” Trumpet heard himself blurt. Across his desk both men winced.

“Maybe you don’t have the temperament for weapons of mass destruction, Tony,” Rhoads started in, but Trumpet was having none of it. He snorted once, like a bull, then turned back on the charm.

“Gentlemen, I understand your concerns. I think we should confine our discussion to business matters at this point.”

Rhoads and Spark frowned simultaneously. “We’re not in business, sir.” Rhoads intoned.

“Not yet, but I’m sure you can imagine the prestige having my name on your project could bring. I can be very generous in cases like this, reduce my licensing fees–”

“Hold on,” Rhoads interrupted. Trumpet hated interruptions, so he kept talking but Rhoads raised his voice. “HOLD ON. Are you saying you’d expect us to pay for the privilege of working with you?” Trumpet puffed himself up and felt the seams of his suit strain.

“My name is the best name. Synonymous with success. Business. Class. Of course you’d pay me if you want to use my name–” Both men started to stand up, Rhoads looking sad, Spark with a mean half-smile on his face that dared Trumpet to keep talking.

“We never asked–” Rhoads started, but Trumpet couldn’t resist the interruption. “FINE, I’LL PAY MONEY!” he heard himself say. Both men stared at his face, bulging with veins. “SIT DOWN!” he thundered. Both men remained standing, but they weren’t walking away yet, so he kept talking.


“Nightbat’s actually a famous comic book–” but Trumpet wasn’t going to let Spark get going again. “I AM GOING TO GIVE YOU MONEY AND YOU ARE GOING TO GIVE ME GODLIKE POWER! UNDERSTAND?”

Spark looked at him levelly, sighed. “How much?”

“One billion dollars,” Trumpet’s mouth said, apparently bypassing the part of his brain that knew how to make deals. Of course it didn’t matter– the deal’s never in the spoken words, the deal’s on paper.  Rhoads looked a little shaken by the sheer size of the figure he’d just quoted, but Spark just calmly fiddled with his phone for a moment, then pursed his lips in a low whistle.

“How many bankruptcies?” He looked back over to Trumpet, who started calmly opening his desk’s top drawer. “No offense, Tony, but even if the rest was a good idea, you literally sue people– banks– who ask you to pay them. Even if you have the money… I don’t want you owing me money.” The technicians started to walk away. It was just the excuse Trumpet needed to pull out the gun.

“DO NOT WALK AWAY FROM ME YOU SONS OF TURDWHORES–” Trumpet boomed, then screamed in pain as the .45 revolver was wrenched from his hand. It flew silently into the metal glove that had sprung from nowhere around Spark’s hand. The bearded man stared straight at Trumpet as the bullets clattered onto the carpet and then the gun screamed as Spark pinched its barrel closed with armored fingers. After a moment he looked thoughtful.

“What’s a turdwhore?”

Spark moved quickly then, reaching across the desk, grabbing Trumpet’s signature red tie. The big man was pulled across the desk, felt his feet leave the ground.

“You’re used to getting your way, Tony, I get it I really do but Lonesome and I are for real. We make things, we do things. You declare bankruptcies, make promises you don’t intend to keep, sell your name. We’re real, Tony. We never stop being real.” Spark’s voice was even and calm, his strength surreal.

“Now, I’m not going to do anything I’d regret. I’m not going to smash your desk, throw you through a wall, nothing. Not even going to threaten you because I don’t need to. Strong people don’t need to be bullies. But please don’t point guns at my friends.”

Trumpet nodded and the smaller man smiled as he dropped him then whirled away, talking as the two partners walked out the door. “Good talk. My people will be in touch. I love what you’ve done with the office, by the way. Beautiful view of the river.” He never bothered to turn his head, just kept talking, getting louder as both men walked out the door.

Trumpet took deep breaths, steadying himself on his desk. The smile that crept across his face as he watched them leave was a horror, like a spider with human teeth.


The phone was in his curiously small hand in seconds, the customized triple-encrypted landline he’d had installed for in-building communications.

“Did you get everything?”

“Nearly everything, sir,” the voice on the other end buzzed. “He wasn’t wearing a complete version of the suit, but when you got him to activate it, it lit up your office’s sensors like a Christmas tree. I don’t think we can replicate his power source but we’ve been working on stable, portable fusion and–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled, bored again. “Make sure you share everything with Moscow.” It wouldn’t do to have that revenue stream dry up. He paced again, feeling strong, pulled out his mirror, stuck out his chin and studied his profile. The face of leadership he thought. It was a good day.

The months that followed were more challenging than Trumpet could have imagined. He’d expected to have a working suit of armor in weeks, so he’d immediately Tweeted about it. Donald Spark found out about it somehow, and publicly accused Trumpet of stealing his designs, which gave Trumpet the closest thing to joy he’d felt in decades. Spark was a smart guy, but he was playing in Trumpet’s arena now.


The battle was joined. “Dirty Donnie stole Trumpet Industries designs to make the Iron Mask. Sad.” was the first of a flurry of Tweets,  followed by  the “Why won’t Dirty Don release emails?” campaign. In the meantime, he filed a preemptive counter-suit just to keep Spark and Rhoads busy. It had the intended effect– the people who always believed Trumpet believed him; the rest were probably secret Mexicans and their opinions didn’t matter. Spark started his own lawsuit but couldn’t get the court to order Trumpet’s research team to cease and desist, mainly because Trumpet and his team neither confirmed nor denied the existence of powered armor research. Spark took to the Twitterverse, pointing out that there was no company called Trumpet Industries.

Trumpet let that one slide, got bored for a little while and went to Scotland to open a golf course and to wait for Spark’s and Rhoads’ supervillain enemies to distract them. His lawyers advised him to be patient and not actually hire anyone to attack New York City, so he didn’t, even though he knew for a fact that Twister and Livid Laser would work for cheap. The lawyers were right, though– Red Dragon attacked Spark’s industrial headquarters soon enough, and the alleged heroes were suddenly much too busy protecting their loved ones to appear in court. R&D on Project Bottled Daemon continued; Trumpet worked on his glower.

Other people’s work continued, too slowly for Trumpet’s taste. Every time he asked for results, the scientists and engineers complained. “This energy source is too unstable,” “thousands could die,” and “we can’t fit plasma cannons on these tiny gloves.” If he was paying them– he couldn’t really remember– he was paying them for results, not excuses so he fired them all and started again. For some reason, the next crop of science geeks were no faster than the first ones. If he’d had his armor he would have murdered them all, but since they were still building his armor he couldn’t.

Frustrating. The technical details weren’t important. Trumpet saw himself in indestructible armor, saw himself– his family– flying higher than the sun.

Spark reemerged as an oppositional force, giving lectures and press conferences, hypocritically saying that money could never make a hero. Bransen and Kord joined Spark on Twitter, new detractors breeding online, buzzing around Trumpet’s account like flies. “Built what I have, didn’t buy it or inherit it,” was the quintessential Spark Tweet; “Money doesn’t create heroes, dreams do,” was Bransen’s contribution. Kord joked that, if some machines were a black box that no one knew what made them tick, Trumpet was a golden box; no one knew what he really wanted. Trumpet embraced it; questioned their motives, parentage,ethnicity. A good fight always gave Trumpet strength.

He increased the pressure on his researchers, pulled some strings, threatened a few regulators to split the red tape; his new chief researcher Arnold Anvil implied that some researchers’ families might disappear. Leadership gets results– 8 weeks later, Anvil announced that the prototype would be ready in the morning. Trumpet arrived at the research station at 3am, giving no warning. Anvil was there– a weedy little man with a suit under his white labcoat. He looked like a tech geek should, though his glasses should’ve been thicker. Evidently supervising the final work on the prototype, he hadn’t shaved in days. Someone must have called him when Trumpet arrived– flanked by large men in suits and sunglasses– but he looked half-asleep and surprised to see his boss on-site even as he stepped forward to shake Tony Trumpet’s hand.

“I thought they’d be bigger…” he mumbled.

“What’s that?” Trumpet rumbled, and Anvil straightened his glasses. “They’re, uh… we’ve got a few more hours before the armor will be ready sir. Still putting on the outer plating and running system tests–”

“Where are the other suits?” Trumpet demanded. Anvil stopped in his tracks and stared. After a long moment, Trumpet deigned to offer an explanation. “For my kids. Wife. Whatever. Every Trumpet gets a suit. The best suits. Of course we do.”

Anvil swallowed, worried. Good. “We’ve only been funded for–”

Trumpet stuck a pouty lip out at his underling. “How many suits?” The man continued to blink back at him.

“A single prototype is a standard best prac–” Trumpet cut him off with a gesture. This was nothing he didn’t know, but it was always better to make people seek his approval rather than give it. Still, as he approached the armor, his contrived frown melted away. So beautiful, he almost felt… satisfied.

The Iron Mask armor was 7 feet tall, grey with red highlights. The Golden Trumpet was a full 9 feet tall– bigger!– and of course gleamed with an outer layer of 14K gold– class! The silver and black designs embossed on its surface kept it interesting to look at. And now that he looked closer, he could see and feel its lethality. He’d be like a gun, an atom bomb, a falcon in that armor.

The best armor. His eyes felt wet; he realized Anvil was ruining it by continuing to blather.

“…weapons systems have not been tested for energy tolerances and fusion core is unstable, but should be ready for limited flight and–”

“Get it ready,” the Trumpet announced, “I’m putting it on.” Anvil goggled at him, speechless.

“Sir,” he finally came up with, “the controls are intuitive, but you need training. You could die in–”

“Nonsense,” Trumpet sniffed. “It’s tough decisions made on the fly, just like running a business.”

“Running a powered suit is nothing like–”

“Powered suit. I like it. Describes me to a T.” He shrugged, looked at the much smaller man like he’d just noticed he was there. “How long until I’m wearing it?”

2 hours later, Trumpet and his team were on the roof, facing the rising sun. His faceplate was clear, so the world could see him, could marvel at him– Tony Trumpet, the genius, the hero.

The winner. The best winner.

“Mister Trumpet, I cannot emphasize enough, I advise against this. Please restrict your flight to under 5 minutes, we are still having overheating issues, and please do not activate any weapons systems. The results could be–”

“I understand,” Trumpet rumbled, not really hearing a word but wanting the man to shut up. This was his moment, dammit, and his world. They backed away as he activated the suit’s jets, as he rose up to meet the sun. He could see the targets on the ground, there for the suit’s demonstration. He pointed his hand blissfully, feeling the power flow to his gloves.

MAGNACANNONS ONLINE a voice spoke in his ear, a beautiful sound. Behind it, Anvil’s voice buzzed, a panicked mosquito in his ear. Finally he thought I’m safe from the world.

Satellite cameras caught a second sun rising on the East Coast, Trumpet Towers evaporated along with much of the city– Trumpet, his current wife and all his children, Anvil, Spark. Millions.

In his death Tony Trumpet rejoiced. In his death the world was blinded by his glory.