Letters From the Labyrinth 352
"I've got Rocket Raccoon money!"
Several years ago, during a freak accident that occurred while cleaning up flood debris from my ex-wife's yard, I caught on fire, suffering second and third degree burns on my head and my left arm. My left forearm got the worst of it, replacing my elbow with a charred black, red, gray, and white crater that looked like melted, running candlewax). I was taken to the local hospital's emergency room, where they stabilized me and then -- lacking the specialists or infrastructure to treat me -- transported me upstate to a fancy burn center.
There I lay, day after day, my head and arm swaddled up like a mummy, the skin on my arm sliced and sloughed away, zoned out on morphine, using my one good arm to turn the pages in Stephen King's The Stand (my favorite novel) and a stack of old comic books someone had sent me. Visitors were kept to a minimum -- just Mary (although towards the end of my stay she got permission to sneak Somer Canon, Stephen Kozeniewski, and Mike Lombardo in to see me). The staff were also insistent on no phone calls.
Which was why it was such a surprise, on my second day there, when the phone next to my bed rang. Mary answered it, and Keith Giffen was on the other end of the line. He had somehow tricked the hospital switchboard into putting his call through. Mary handed the phone to me, saying with a mix of surprise and bemusement, "It's Keith."
I took the phone in my one good arm, held it up to my head, and struggled to hear through the bandages covering my ears.
"Hey," I said. "What's up?"
"What's up?" Keith growled. "You tell me. I have to read online that you got burned?"
"Yeah," I replied and gave him an abbreviated version of events.
"Why did they set up a GoFundMe?" Keith asked.
"Because I don't have health insurance, Keith. You know that."
I knew Keith knew that because -- at the time -- something we talked about often on our monthly two-hour phone calls was the fact that he'd gone exclusive with DC Comics mostly for the health insurance benefits, something which -- given his age and his lifestyle -- he needed.
"I know," he barked, "but why didn't you call me first? Fuck it. I've got Rocket Raccoon money. How much do you need?"
And that was Keith Giffen -- creator of Rocket Raccoon, Lobo, and so many other characters -- in a nutshell. He could be acerbic, curmudgeonly, kind, and generous all at the same time.
I was a fan of Keith's as a kid back in the 1970s. I can't remember which was my introduction — if it was his run on Marvel's The Defenders, that Marvel Premiere issue that featured Woodgod, or his issues of Claw the Unconquered and Kamandi: Last Boy on Earth for DC. It was one of those, for sure. But I remember that his art style grabbed me right away, just as Sal Buscema had on Hulk and Defenders, and Jack Kirby had on The Eternals, 2001, and Captain America and the Falcon. Like those two, and Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Doug Moench, Scott Edelman, J.M. DeMatteis, Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, David Anthony Kraft, and Wendy Pini, Keith became an important early influence.
I won't give a blow-by-blow of Keith's career here, because this isn't that type of writing piece. Yes Ambush Bug, Legion of Super-Heroes, Lobo, Justice League, Annihilation, Trencher, Star-Lord, Scooby Doo Apocalypse, etc. But the one that always stood out for me was "Chigger and the Man" from Taboo. Written and drawn by Keith, it remains to this day one of the most effective and unnerving horror comics ever produced, and it achieves that in only ten pages.
Fast forward to around the time that Ghoul or Dark Hollow came out. I got an old-fashioned fan letter from Keith. Turned out he'd been reading me, J.F. Gonzalez, Bryan Smith, Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, and Edward Lee just as fast as Leisure Books could put our stuff out. After a few emails, we transitioned to phone calls. Early on in our friendship, I told him about my love of "Chigger and the Man" and how it was the inspiration for my long, long-unfinished novel LOVE AND WORMS, and he was genuinely touched. Keith was not a person to let you know when he was genuinely touched, but he did so that time.
We worked together on DOOM PATROL, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, and DC HOUSE OF HORROR. We pitched a bunch more than that, including Vigilante, a relaunch of Plop, House of Mystery, Unexpected, and a dark and horrific alien invasion comic. DC passed on all of these. And we were supposed to work together on Future's End. (As recounted elsewhere, I ultimately departed that project because DC wanted to pay me half of what they were paying the rest of the writing team, which prompted Keith to exclaim, "They fucked Jack Kirby, Brian. What chance do you think you've got?"). But Keith always had my back, and he always, always, always went to the mattresses for me. I will miss his support, respect, and guidance.
But mostly I will miss those hilarious monthly phone calls, where we'd talk about everything from what we were reading to comic industry gossip to him playing Fallout 3 in what he called "serial killer mode" (he’d go through the entire game not completing any of the missions and instead just killing every NPC or creature came across — literally just wiping out the population of the world so that they “would leave him alone”). Occasionally we would talk about serious things -- particularly in the months following his wife's death. He perked up again around the time he got his dog. But mostly, we just laughed our asses off and said terrible things to each other and then laughed our asses off again. Those calls were always side-splittingly funny, and on those days, I got very little work accomplished after we hung up, because I'd giggle for hours afterword. Mary said she could always tell when I was on the phone with Keith by the amount of laughter coming from my office.
Keith would have been uncomfortable with the massive outpouring of accolades we've seen on social media and in the press this past week, so I won't say much else here, or get too heartfelt. In truth, "Fuck it. I've got Rocket Raccoon money. How much do you need?" sums him up pretty well.
I'll miss you, man. Thanks for being so kind and helpful, and for believing in me, and for gifting us all with your staggering and one-of-a-kind imagination.
Good morning. I’m Brian Keene and this is the 352nd issue of Letters From the Labyrinth — a weekly newsletter for fans, friends, and family. I’m typing this on Saturday morning from VoidCon in Huntington, West Virginia. this was the convention’s first year, and I hope to see them grow. Very cool vibe to it all.
I’ve been up since 3:30am, woken from a terrible dream about work and finances, which are lame things to have bad dreams about. Is that what it means to be 56? Will I no longer have bad dreams about monsters and giant snakes? Will my nightmares now be about hemorrhoids and cancer and osteoporosis and “You didn’t save enough money for retirement, Brian!”?
(Seriously, though. Hemorrhoids are no joke. They are a perfectly acceptable thing to have nightmares about, because they are a nightmare in the waking world, as well. And right now, some of you are yelling, “We don’t want to hear about your hemorrhoids, Keene! My god, is there nothing this man won’t mine for his writing?” In which case, hey, if you want a newsletter without hemorrhoids, go check out John Skipp or Tom Brevoort, both of which are also on Substack, and both of which are must-read newsletters for me, and neither of which have any talk of hemorrhoids — at least so far).
But I digress.
Anyway… up since 3:30. Will begin signing books at 10 this morning. I have a panel at 1pm where I’m supposed to look back on my career and talk about it. I’ll be doing that on very little sleep, so that should be interesting.
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The press release which would have revealed what OPERATION: WALKABOUT really is still hasn’t happened. I don’t know when it will. As I said last week, you give up control of most things when you work with the mainstream. Not much other information I can give you. Hopefully, you’ll know more soon.
M - O - O - N. That spells soon…
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Scares That Care is doing an online fundraiser this weekend, in honor of Friday the 13th. We’re seeking tax deductible donations. Show the world how generous horror fans are, and help those in need. To donate by phone, text Scare13 to 91999. To donate online, go here. Thank you in advance!
Last year, Dannielle was diagnosed with breast cancer. Last week, we presented Dannielle (pictured here with Scares That Care Board of Directors member Donna Thew) with this check for $10,000. This was made possible because of *you* -- the fans, writers, actors, filmmakers, editors, and everyone else in the horror community who support our mission and make it possible for us to help to help those in need.
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THE MAP OF LOST PLACES is a forthcoming anthology edited by Sheree Renee Thomas and Lesley Conner and published by Apex. I’ll be contributing a brand-new story set in LeHorn’s Hollow, which will examine the deeper roots and history of that accursed place. (For new readers, LeHorn’s Hollow is the fictional setting for my novels DARK HOLLOW and GHOST WALK, as well as numerous short stories). You can back it on Kickstarter here.
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Next Saturday, October 21, I’ll be signing books at Snowden Square in downtown Brownsville, Pennsylvania (right next to the library) from 3pm to 10pm. You can bring your books from home or buy them on site. Please note — my stock is limited at this point in the year, so if you have an absolute favorite of mine, you may want to bring it along, just to be safe.
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Thanks to eagle-eyed Eddie Coulter, who spotted a copy of CURSE OF THE BASTARDS by myself and Steven L. Shrewsbury in the latest episode of Creepshow (the finale for season four). That was a nice surprise!
Not sure who to thank for this? I’m guessing maybe Greg Nicotero was behind it? Or maybe Todd Spence and Zak White? Whoever it was, thanks!
I am reminded of when DEAD SEA made an appearance in an episode of Comic Book Men, courtesy of Bryan Johnson.
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Currently Reading: Bloodtooth by D.W. Hitz
Currently Listening: Brian Keene Radio
Currently Watching: Survivor season 45 (Paramount Plus) and Family Guy (Hulu)
Currently Playing: Fallout 76 (XBox) and Clash of Clans
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Instead of recapping last week’s work like I usually do, here’s that alien invasion pitch that Keith and I made to DC/Vertigo back in the day.
TALENT: Keith Giffen and Brian Keene.
HIGH CONCEPT: The Walking Dead with aliens.
THE STORY: An incredibly disparate group of people -- including Larry (a young inmate whose crime was being black), Tara (a young woman who’s just completed sexual reassignment), Angus (a Conservative talk radio host), Rachel (a Jewish single mother safeguarding her daughter Jessica), Jorge (a gay marketing executive), Justin (a rural prepper), and Phillip (a career criminal and apolitical nihilist) –- must overcome their differences and prejudices to survive the aftermath of an alien invasion that has left the world in ruins. As what’s left of humanity is systematically hunted down, they must find a way to hide together, fight together, and live together.
THE TWIST: The cast is unlike anything else in comics, representing the true diversity of not just the readership, but the country itself. Also, the vast majority of post-apocalyptic media being produced right now simply mimics the zombies of The Walking Dead or Brian’s own The Rising. This is a fresh take on those tropes. Rather than mindless, shuffling undead antagonists, the aliens are smart, cunning, and technologically superior to our protagonists, upping the threat exponentially.
GENRE: A horror/science-fiction/post-apocalyptic/romantic human drama. With aliens.
THEME: When everyone is racing against each other, there’s only one race that matters – the human race. Male. Female. Non-binary. Black. White. Brown. Progressive. Conservative. Moderate. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Live together or Die together.
RELEVANCE: Post-apocalyptic fiction is immensely popular at this time. Diversity is the driving issue in comics — and often a divisive one. This series marries them together, examining issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and political beliefs in an action-packed, emotional, sometimes comedic, often horrific, and always intense ongoing series about survival.
STRONG VISUALS: From the twisted rubble of New York City to the smoking ruins of the Appalachians to the bone dry Mississippi River to the now missing California, the United States of America is a wasteland ruled by desperation, determination, and despair.
FAN BASE: Both creators have large, strong fan bases. Will also appeal to fans of The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, DMZ, Independence Day, Battle Los Angeles, 28 Days Later, and Starship Troopers.
Sadly, like I said, DC/Vertigo passed on it, and Keith was still under his exclusive contract with DC at the time, so we couldn’t shop it elsewhere. So, it never happened and is consigned to Lucien’s library, along with the novel Jack Ketchum and I had discussed doing together before he got too sick. There are other levels where these things got finished, but alas, not here on our level.
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This newsletter has always been free and will always remain free. I will never charge for it. However, if you’d like to send a tip or buy me a beer or coffee, you can PayPal me here.
(I don’t often mention that, but I got a few emails this week asking so there ya go. Appreciate it, of course).
And that does it for this week. As you read this, Mary and I have left Huntington and are on our way home, after a possible short side-trip to Point Pleasant, West Virginia and the infamous Mothman Museum. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you back here next Sunday. (And hope to see some of you in Brownsville next weekend).
— Brian Keene