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Online Exclusive Fiction – “Grisly Vegas” by Libby Kennedy

Elvis falls, bashes his face on the sidewalk. Haggard grizzly bear Elvis, same slick pompadour, crooked toothy snarl, he walks with that hip thrust Elvis is famous for, shaggy black mutton chop sideburns. In Vegas. People stop, stand gawking, not comprehending what Elvis…or a grizzly bear for that matter is doing on The Strip in Vegas. Elvis is dead, bears live in forests.

He trips on the sidewalk lip, smashes out his front teeth, scrapes his chin. Grunts sticky gunk around in his throat. Some people stop to look, others quicken away, sideways glance with that guilty feeling when a hobo asks for a few coins. Gotta whole lotta shaken’ goin’ on. They pass by looking for buffet discounts or magic fountain shows, bad tattoo shops, hookers. This mutton chopped bear picks himself up and bows his massive head in pain, drops of blood dripping from his maw. A tooth with meat still attached lays on the ground. It’d make a nice five dollar Vegas souvenir necklace. He takes a step, unsteady, like the rest of the drunks around him. He should shake his head, long pearly string of bloody mucus whipping back and forth then run off like wild things do. He doesn’t. He pads along the main drag, blending in with the freaks. Giggling Japanese girls take photos with Elvis, lean on him like a giant cuddly Pikachu. He’s hungry but changes his mind because these girls are rail thin. He doesn’t snarl or roar like one would expect from a wounded animal. Pauses out of boredom then waddles off down the strip.

Chris Angel is filming a show. Chains, glass box full of water or amniotic fluid, gasoline, fricken zombies, electrodes, lightening, legless midgets, one bored mermaid. Elvis walks through set and the filmmakers jump to attention, it’s part of the program. Bright lights in par cans, and ACTION. Rawr! Bear’s all shook up. Craft Service table, eats up his 15 minutes of fame, end scene, off he goes, off to The Wynn.
Still hungry and its spawning season in the Koi Pond. He paws at some fish. No one on the rivers edge blinks. Part of the show. Paid actor. He scoops up some stupid trusting koi fish that comes kissing up to the surface, into his mouth and bites with what teeth he has left. Guts burst a crunchy wet skwartch, gills flapping like pageant queens waving. Front row pond side table, an LA woman orders pan fried trout.

Someone hands him a flyer, girls, pretty girls. Cheap blowjobs. Totally Legal. Free Shuttle there and back. He looks at the flyer, doesn’t take it, no pockets to put it in. Flyer Guy moves on to someone who does have pockets. It’ll stay in Vegas.

Blood dries on his face. Broken teeth are throbbing. Still hungry. Always hungry. Trash can stuffed, half eaten hamburgers, pizza crusts, greasy fries. Isn’t fresh salmon or small forest creatures but close enough. He knocks the lid off, tears into his meal. The only person to take notice is a woolly coat transient with dreadlocks, waits his turn to rummage. Elvis leaves behind a long plastic cup of blue sluice, frozen pineapple coconut and vodka. Woolly coat grabs the yard long and raises it with an appreciative eye twitch. Same toothless grin.

Artificial stars, meteor showers illuminate the air. Time to bed down. An alley, pile of cardboard. Mini Cooper paws stack boxes against the brick building, he crawls inside. Day sounds switch to the sounds of night creatures. Moans, the wail of sirens, hunters, the hunted, night spirits, constantly prowling. Red eyed junk demon steps into the opening of his den. Elvis opens one eye, lifts a lip and spits a snarl in the beasts face. A scurried retreat, shaking, acrid smell of fear, sweat, urine. He can rest, hackles flatten, conserve energy.
His mind wanders prior to falling into the chasm of deep sleep. Wide open glades, flowers woven through tall grasses that sway in the breeze, whiffle of wind over a velvet field.

Clattering monster rolls back towards the box pile, beep beep. Waking is instant, fur; muscles ruffling as he runs from rolling beast. The machine grapples hook arms to hoist a bin, the bin spews into its open back. Elvis retreats, determined to find the glade.

A mother; child in tow, hammers out a text on her cell phone. Drops child’s hand. A mound of curls and full diaper walks on tip toes to where the bear sits. Distant siren though buildings, playing tennis, volleying sounds in one direction then another, violent game of ping pong. She pauses in front of Elvis, their faces inches apart, breath to breath. One nose cold, wet, one sticky with snot. The toddler creeps her hands up to his face, cups his chin gently, eyes melt together, chocolate in a double boiler. The sun leans between two towers, follow spot on their stage, focus on this one perfect moment. His gentle snort, her lips curl in a smile. She holds his maw. And he is still. Two hands under his chin, soft there, she likes it. They breathe, soft warm, short breaths, in, out. In sync. And the mother turns.

A million pigeons take flight, deck of cards shuffling mid flight when she screams. Reverb cuts the air, slices the light, the sun shrinks behind, she screams, lunges, snatches, nail slices, spit projectile, stroller warbles, tips, crash. Panic, the child screeches, grabs his fur, pulls, yanks, rips. He bellows, howls, there’s pain, so much pain, her hand is full of his hair, mouth still sore from falling, losing teeth, terror, roar, head wags as the girl is scooped free, untangled, unwoven. Car appears, doors open, flurry of fire, shattered light. A bristling climax of pain maggots through him. Moist blink.

Then soft hands caress. He opens his eyes and the girl has placed her hand on his cheek. The warmth of the sun and he sees a tuft of green, a water colour patch of grass edging through a concrete crack, his glade. And Elvis has left Vegas.

The woman lets her daughter stroke the mans beard, one long, gentle tender moment, then pulls the child back into her arms. First responders roll up.

Libby Kennedy’s writing credits include multiple prizes for short fiction in the Cecilia Lamont Literary Prize competition, as well as the Bard’s Ink Competition and Burnaby Writers Society Competition. Her stories have been published in Dark Times (Ronsdale Press), CHICKEN SOUP for the Mother of Preschoolers Soul, Attitude with Gratitude, CUP of COMFORT for Fathers, and an upcoming Roslyn Press anthology.

Book Review: Mighty Star and the Castle of Cancatervater

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Alex Degen, 174 pgs,Koyama Press,koyamapress.com, $15

Koyama Press has a habit of taking risks with artists, but even then it is hard to imagine how a neo-baroque-meets-Dragonball Z superhero comic made it through the selection process. Mighty Star and the Castle of Cancatervater did just that, and despite its handful of shortcomings, the volume is as fun and quirky as it means to be. A larger question, though, is whether or not Mighty Star makes the kind of philosophical statement it intends to, and this answer is less certain.

Alex Degen puts together an impressive universe for this six-part story arc, boasting clear influences from Gothic tradition, Godzilla films, 90s anime, and classic Superman comics. The combination is a surprising success, and every setting rings striking and unexpected, whether it be the innards of a life-force-extracting factory circa the Industrial Revolution, or the Garden of Eden turned sour, with Adam and Eve clones hanging from branches by their apple-necks. Exploring Degen’s myriad of settings may be the most enjoyable part of Mighty Star, and that’s no slight.

That being said, Mighty Star himself is forgettable, drawn as a young everyman in a Zorro mask, and Degen’s refusal to use dialogue (as successful as it might be in emphasizing sound effects) takes away our ability to connect with the diverse cast. This gripe comes with the noted exception of Cancatervater himself, who is an unnerving, dynamic villain. Cancatervater develops further every time the reader encounters him, in direct connection to the growing sense of unease felt as the volumes progress. The villain is a theme embodied — an ever-larger pile of violent stuff!

Degen’s ability to show characters overcoming oppressive philosophy may have been hindered by his non-dialogue method, but it was by no means maimed. Mighty Star remains a solid read, and it’s one I’ll return to. (Joel W. Vaughan)

Book Review: Confetti

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Ginette Lapalme, 203 pgs, Koyama Press, koyamapress.com, $20 

Not only is Ginette Lapalme an active member of the Toronto craft scene, but she also boasts a strong presence online, with both a popular blog and a thriving Etsy shop. Confetti — a fitting title — is her scattered gallery of artwork, vaguely divided into eight sections of varied length and medium. Within, Lapalme demonstrates an impressive aptitude for carrying her signature themes across a huge variety of surfaces, but in doing so, may run up against her reader’s patience. Confetti is a gorgeous presentation, but it’s one that brinks on stretching too thin.

Lapalme’s style is recognizable at a distance. With her signature wide-eye’d doodles and tahiti-treat colour scheme, she owes as much to Betty Boop and Felix the Cat as she does to a 1977 Miami-pink skyline. She demonstrates a fascination with anthropomorphism, granting every blob, being, and scribbled vagina a face and expression. Curator Karie Liao’s foreword argues that this demonstrates some kind of “postmodern camp aesthetic,” but I might instead attribute this tendency to a general sense of playfulness — one which certainly translates to the reader experience.

That being said, Lapalme’s work traces its characters across 203 pages of zines, comics, doodles, paintings, photographs, and manipulated objects. Though divided into sections, these don’t constitute categories as much as they do floors to a gallery, each one filled to the brim with Lapalme’s little winking trinkets. Confetti may be fun and colourful, but one is forced to remark at the size of the piñata it’s being delivered in. (Joel W. Vaughan)

Book Review: Asylum Squad: Monster Hospital 2

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Sarafin, 113 pgs, Mad Pride, asylumsquad.com, $15 

Based on the author’s own experiences in an in-patient mental institution, this second graphic novel collects the Asylum Squad’s continued adventures as chronicled in the webcomic of the same name.

This volume sees Liz Madder, a diagnosed schizophrenic who believes she is possessed by a nightmarish horse head named Armananstantanu, and her gender-bending companion Henry Chan as they finally get the skinny on the Ajna Project. Turns out, it’s an experimental treatment for schizophrenia that allows participants to create superhero versions of themselves and battle their demons from within their subconscious.

Meanwhile, we meet Sarah and Cath, the two other members of The Asylum Squad who, along with Henry and Liz, vow to rebel against their confines and the nursing staff in anyway they can. Despite their antics putting their candidacy in the Ajna Project in jeopardy, they end up being accepted — setting up the intriguing possibility of some sort of mental illness Justice League.

The magic of this series is not the rather loose plot or the obviously Scott Pilgrim-influenced, manga-style artwork, but the insider knowledge Sarafin possesses of the mental health system. The way she depicts the relationships between the Asylum Squad members and the good cop/bad cop nurses will be highly relatable to anyone who has “been there” and extremely eye-opening to anyone who has not.

She even weaves in a little mental illness activism, enlightening the reader toward the issues surrounding mad pride, discrimination, and stigma. This is where the work unequivocally shines. It’s power lies in its ability to begin a dialogue around mental illness that is still very new to most people without being preachy or heavy-handed.

The Asylum Squad is a superhero team like no other, as they undoubtedly will be pitted against mental demons that many more still fight in silence. (Aaron Broverman)

Access All Areas: Remembering Ninjalicious and Infiltration Zine

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Photo of Ninjalicious (Jeff Chapman) by Derek Wuenschirs

by William Bryce George

The street was empty, the night almost still. The condominium tower loomed above me, black against the lambent, overcast sky. It looked vast and abandoned, but of course it was only incomplete; no one had moved in yet. I wanted to climb its thirty-odd storeys, and look around at my city, Vancouver, from its rooftop. I had seen a security guard in his car on the opposite side of the building, but I decided to take my chances. I hopped—stepped, really—over the fence from some neighboring stairs, and walked with brisk composure to the nearest lighted stairwell leading down to the underground parkade, from which I hoped to find another stairwell leading up. My palms were sweaty, my extremities tingling, and I instantly needed to pee. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself that I wasn’t doing anything bad, that my only crime was curiosity.

I had been doing this sort of thing—urban exploration, infiltration, and recreational trespass—for about a year. I had got inside hotel pools, tunnels, attics, abandoned hospital wings, staff-only areas, boiler rooms, storm drains, and several other construction sites. But it was still scary and exhilarating.

My introduction to urban exploration had come from Access All Areas, a user’s guide to the hobby by the Toronto-based zinemaker Ninjalicious (aka Jeff Chapman), best known for his groundbreaking publication Infiltration: the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go. Chapman produced twenty-five issues between 1996 and 2005, when he passed away at age thirty-one from cancer. He’s largely considered one of the founders of an online urban exploration community that still thrives (see, for example, the zine’s web archive, infiltration.org, and Urban Exploration Resource, uer.ca).

Access All Areas and Infiltration were a revelation for me, not only for Ninjalicious’s well-crafted prose, his enthusiasm, or his humor, but the sheer joyous innocence that he exudes. It’s clear from his stories that he simply loves turning doorknobs, peering into dark rooms, squeezing into crawlspaces, climbing around on things, and figuring out how to get from here to there, or how this connects to that. Steam tunnels and machine rooms that only a film location scout could love he describes as “valve paradise” and “pipey goodness.” The city, in his writings, becomes a playground and a beguiling labyrinth. He too, like all of us, gets some thrill of excitement at evading the powers that be, but his primary motivation is not to defy authority, and his default method is not to skulk or sneak like a ninja.

Book Review: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

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Ali Almossawi, 64 pgs, The Experiment, theexperimentpublishing.com, $14.95 

In this digital age we live in, it’s surprisingly easy to get dragged into an endless debate or argument online. With Internet trolls around every corner, it’s becoming increasingly crucial that we regular folk don’t just learn how to argue, but also how to know a bad argument when we hear one.

This is where An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments comes in, laying out all the classically bad arguments one can make with helpful illustrated explanations that have all the whimsy of The Wind in the Willows-esque anthropomorphic animals.

At first glance, the strategy seems juvenile — mocking the very people who would dare employ a Strawman or No True Scotsman argument with a literal “silly rabbit, fallacies are for kids!” comment. But then, as you start reading, the childish examples really help you comprehend an improper style of argument that might be difficult to wrap your brain around otherwise.

In fact, it was surprising how much the illustrations actually helped, especially with the sparsely-worded explanations underneath. Take “An Argument from Consequence,” for example; it’s when you speak for or against the truth of a statement by appealing to its consequences if it were true or false. (Yeah, our eyes glazed over too.) But add the handy-dandy illustration of a farmer riding a cow who comes across a sign that says, “Cow emissions are killing our planet” with the below caption: “But if we got rid of cows, we’d have to walk everywhere and that would be horrible. Therefore, cow emissions are not killing our planet.” Suddenly, “An Argument from Consequence” makes much more sense.

This collection is a must-have reference guide for anyone who frequently finds themselves wading the always-murky waters of online debate. (Aaron Broverman)