Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Performance Review (A Short Story)

This is a short story I posted for a contest. While it was "thoroughly enjoyed" it was not picked for the anthology.

“Performance Review”

Clark Dawkins tapped his pen nervously on his thick oak wood desk. He’d been working as a manager at DeFalco’s department store for twenty years and had made a pretty good living for himself. He very rarely called in sick, and only in case of emergencies. It didn’t seem unreasonable to expect an employee to show at least a modicum of responsibility when balancing personal life and work life. His black hair with grey streaks on the side gave a distinguished, authoritative air about him, without making him seem too old. He liked that about his look.
The manager’s desk displayed a bowl of assorted chocolate and mint-flavored candies; a desktop computer that looked fairly new; a framed photo of Clark and his partner of ten years, Rafael; a pen holder containing three pens, a letter opener and pruning shears; and a finely watered, well maintained Bonsai tree. He read a newspaper with the headline that read “Captain Victory Rescues Tour Bus from cliffside plunge”. However, his attention was focused on the story titled, “Quickfade breaks sound barrier and Human-trafficking ring.”  
The door opened and in walked a teenaged girl with short pixie-style hair, a blue polo shirt that was one size too big, denim pants and converse high top sneakers. Putting away the newspaper, Clark adjusted his blue buttoned up long sleeve dress shirt and red tie with black stripes, making sure they all align just right before he says, “Thanks for coming. We’ll go ahead and get started.”
Mya leaned back, almost lethargic in her body language. One leg crossed over the other and she rested her head against the wall, her attention gained, but not her interest. “Yeah,” she mumbled, “No problem.”
Clark took out a vanilla file folder from inside a desk drawer and flipped it open. He recited, “’Mya is a reliable worker when she is available to be reached. Often times she disappears for long stretches and cannot be reached to assist customers in her department.’” He pauses to remark, “You work in junior’s right?”
“Right,” Mya disinterestedly replied.
“Yes,” he continued, “’Despite this, the junior’s department is near immaculate in terms of presentation and cleanliness. The fitting rooms are always cleaned out by shift’s end and fold tables and Z-rails are put away at close of day.’ Aside from the lack of availability, your work is exemplary. Is there a reason you don’t like interacting with customers?”
Mya gave a small sigh, sat up in the chair and said, “If I’m bein’ honest, it’s because they either have really dumb questions, or ask about stuff that should be plainly obvious. When I do get stopped by a customer, do you know how many times it’s just for them to ask if I work here?”
“You say that like you’re the first person who’s ever had that happen to them.”
“I know I’m not, but it’s annoying as f…frick.”
“I know it is,” Clark leaned forward, putting his forearms on the desk as he continued, “It’s happened to me more times than I can count; still does. But the customer’s being annoying doesn’t mean we can just ignore them if they need help.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Mya mumbled. She leaned back once more and folded her arms.
Clark leaned back in his chair and sighed, placing the file on the desk. He gave a slight grimace and said, “There’s something I want to address, but I wanted to make sure you were in a safe, non-threatening environment so you can speak about it freely.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mya said, shifting in her seat and tensing her muscles.
Clark reached to the folder once more and pulled up another sheet. He read off, “’Customers talked to manager about ‘unusual gusts of wind’ as they pass by.’ Also, I couldn’t help but notice these skid marks on the floor. Like someone or something came to a screeching halt. It wouldn’t be a problem except it was a good fifteen feet long. Also, some of those wind gusts and skid marks came with a high pitched scuffing sound, like someone wearing sneakers making sharp turns and pivots.”
Mya’s foot began rapidly tapping on the floor. It grew so audible Clark could hear it as he continued, “So I decided to head to the LP office and take a look at the cameras. I noticed that you’re in Juniors one second and in the next, you’re all the way across the store in Housewares.”
Mya muttered, “Maybe the camera skips every few seconds, maybe you blinked.”
Clark waved his hand in dismissal and said, “Then, I’ve had people tell me you come in from your breaks, which you seem to take an abundance of, with black eyes and bruises but when you leave the store, they’re gone. No one puts on concealing makeup that quickly.”
“What are you getting at?” Mya blurted in annoyance. Her foot tapping had now worn a friction hole in the carpet.
“It’s simple, really,” Clark said matter-of-factly, “I think you’re a speedster. Moreover, I think you’re Quickfade.”
“WHAT?” Mya exclaimed, her face a portrait of incredulity, “That’s ridiculous!”
“How do you explain anything of the evidence I’ve just brought up?” Clark held up the file next to his face.
Mya stood up and slammed her palms on the desk, moving fast enough to make Clark hold out an arm. “What evidence? Bunch of whiny customers? And you got any actual video footage or am I supposed to just confess because you say you saw me?”
Clark, maintaining his composure despite his momentary startling, replied, “I’ve documented everything and have it in a safe place. I won’t turn it in to anybody because this isn’t my secret to tell. I just want you to be honest with me about it.”
“Okay, first of all,” Mya held up her fingers in succession as she spoke, “You still have absolutely no evidence that I’m Quickfade aside from your word of seeing skid marks, and heresay. Two; Even if I was a superhero, why would I ever admit it to someone I don’t even know? Three; Say I was a person with superspeed and you just found me out. What makes you think I’m Quickfade and not, say, Bloodspeed? Bloodspeed’s a female and she moves pretty fast, too. If I were a superfast bad guy, what’d stop me from beating you into a pulp within a split second to get the evidence out of you?”
Clark stood up slowly, towering over Mya by at least a foot, keeping his posture relaxed and tone even. “You really think I’d pull you in to confront you about this if I didn’t have any proof? You just wore a hole in my carpet with your foot! Also, Bloodspeed is Japanese; not to mention that she’s taller than you and has a wider build. And third, why would any supervillain waste their time with a job in retail? They either sell weapons on the black market, use shell corporations, rob people or banks, or anything else. They don’t do the nine-to-five; they don’t care about helping customers get their comforter sets and flatscreens.”
“What do you even care?” Mya shouted, taking a step back from the desk to fold her arms once more.
Clark puts his hands on his hips, replying, “I care because let’s just say someone caught you using your powers and was not interested in your personal privacy and well-being. Say they blabbed to the tabloids or the legit press. A villain gets word and all of a sudden, we’re having employees murdered or tortured just to find out any information on your real identity.”
“Me? ME not use MY powers?” Mya shrieked, “How about you tell Landon in maintenance to use a ladder next time he wants to change a florescent light instead of floating? Or maybe I should call him Airdraft?”
“What?”
“Yeah, and while you’re at it, tell Amy at customer service not to broadcast her sarcastic thoughts so loud, because I hear it in my head every time she talks about how dumb or unreasonable a customer’s being. And trust me, they hear it, too. Think the public would like to hear they complain and moan about return policies and coupons to Madam Membrane?”
Clark runs a hand over his mouth and sighs deeply, then placing his hand on his forehead. “Are you kidding me with this? Deflecting?”
“Def-Oh, you think it’s just me? What, is this cause I’m Latina?“
“Don’t you even go there, missy!”
Mya retorted, “Alright, well, what do you say to this?” Within the split second of a blink, she reached forward, pulling a letter opener out of the pen holder. In the middle of trying to stab Clark in the shoulder, the manager raised his hand with lightning reflexes of his own, catching the blade in his hand, gripping it tight. Mya pressed it as hard as she could, but he stayed her motion without a single indication of exertion. With a wry smile, Mya commented, “Still think it’s just me, Captain Victory?”
Clark’s jaw clenched so hard he could chew coal and spit diamonds. He pulled the letter opener away easily and set it on the table. The blade sat in a semi-folded heap, rendered little more than a paperweight. He took off his glasses and lowered his gaze to the desk. He couldn’t believe he let it get to that point. But what was he to do? He recognized the body language and his training kicked in.
Clark, as Captain Victory, had faced speedsters before. He remembered the words of the previous Captain Victory: Fighting a speedster is like racing a car on foot. They think and travel only on the course in front of them. Therefore, you have to think about the shortcuts. Plan ten moves ahead. That way you can allow yourself room to maneuver. Because even if their steps are faster than yours, they still have to put them one after another like everyone else. Know the course; Change the course. “So,” Clark said taking in a deep breath, “How did you know?”
“Wasn’t tough to figure out, really,” Mya beamed, proud of herself at the discovery. Sitting back down, she nodded at the bonsai tree on Clark’s desk and said, “Knew a guy at the metahuman school I went to, used bonsai trees and painting to teach himself precision and control when using his strength. I assume you’re here for the same reason I am, right?”
“And what reason is that?”
“Feds put us here individually to keep up appearances. Some genius at Langley thinks us supers mingling with the normal folk and doing the crap work is good for keeping us humble, reminding us why we fight and all that. Plus, we get a stipend on top of what we make here. Don’t know why we aren’t allowed to know about each other’s powers and all that, but I’d think we could do a little better than retail, you know?”
Clark walked around the desk and sat on the edge, looking at Mya’s self-pleased posture and said, “We’re told not to tell anyone but the government psychologists about our powers. Not even other metahumans. It sucks having only the shrinks to talk to about our real lives.”
“Shrinks don’t get a beer with their clients or hang out at their house to watch Orange Is The New Black,” Mya muttered, slowly withdrawing her arms. She pulled them near her abdomen, almost shrinking into herself.
“I’m not a fan of the idea either, personally I think it’s kind of dumb,” Clark replied, sitting in the seat next to Mya and locking his fingers together in a contemplative stance. After pausing for a minute to gather his thoughts, Clark said, “But I think I get it. Say a metahuman and a non-powered person are up for a promotion. Do I give it to whoever’s best for the job or the one who can swing a cable-car like a baseball bat?”
“Well, when you put it like that, the one with the cable-car, obviously.”
Clark tried to catch a chuckle, but failed miserably. He laughed, “Look, Mya, I think we all need to sit with the feds and have a nice long chat about hiding each other from one another is just stepping on each other’s toes. But for now, we keep this all on the QT. I’ll have a talk with everyone about using their powers in the store, but we have to do it discreetly so as not to make the others suspicious, okay? So far you’re the only one who’s figured this out and we need to keep the brass from finding out before we’re ready. You’re the first I’ve given a performance review with so I’m glad we could have this talk. Hopefully, we can sort things out and things can get back to…” He paused to let out a concerned sigh.
“Normal?” Mya said, finishing the thought.
“Yeah,” Clark said, “I know more than you think about trying to hide who you really are.”
“I imagine so,” Mya replied, a glance at the portrait of Clark with his husband let her know exactly what he meant. “So, does this mean I’ll get a raise?”
Clark shook his head with a chuckle and a smile. “Yes,” he replied, “It’s a thirty cent raise since it’s your first year here and despite the absences, you’re still a good employee.”
“Speaking of absences, what about you?” Mya inquired, “When you get a call about a crisis, what do you do?”
Clark stands up and walks to the desk, reaching underneath the desktop and “I excuse myself to the office and use this,” Pressing a button under the desk, the left side wall revealed Captain Victory’s costume. A giant blue cape cloaked over the shoulders of a red unitard with a bright white letter “V” on the left breast, blue tights over the pelvic area and white gloves and boots. A red domino mask sits in the case above the costume. “I change and go out the other side.”
“I wish I had one of those instead of having to wear my costume under my clothes. Makes me overheat, sometimes.”
“It was one of the conditions of my taking up a managerial spot here. I told them, ‘if you want this to work, you’ll give me the secret closet in my office.’”
“Please tell me none of them made a ‘coming out’ joke.”
“I’m sure someone thought about it, but decided that they enjoyed keeping all of their teeth.”
“This is a really messed up situation we’re in, man,” Mya sigh, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Tell me about it,” Clark said, pressing the button under the desk again to conceal his costume. He sat back down behind the desk and straightened his tie. He said, “I wonder how many more of us are out there working regular jobs trying to blend in with the rest of the folks?”
“I think my mechanic might be some kind of gadgeteer,” Mya replied, putting one leg over the other. “She fixed up my car the other day and-”
“Whoa, whoa whoa,” Clark held up his hands in stunned incredulity, “Car? A speedster with a car?”
Mya shrugged, “What? You expect me to run everywhere? How’s it going to look when I come into work at sub sonic speeds?”
“I just find it hilarious that you need a car,” remarked Clark.
“Says the man who can fly,” she snarked back.
“What must that be like?”
“It’s a huge pain in the ass,” Mya exclaimed, “When you’re used to going at speeds that could break the sound barrier, driving a car is like being brought to a delicious-looking buffet, but then being told to eat at the salad bar.”
Clark pointed at Mya in recognition and said, “I feel the same way when flying on an airplane for a managerial conference.” Leaning forward in his chair, he continued, “I know the FAA has strict guidelines and all that stuff about superheroes only flying in emergencies and patrols, but damn it all to Hell I want to fly myself to Hawaii or just take Rafael there with me one time and then fly back. But no, we have to wait in lines and go through customs like everyone else. It’s a hassle.”
Mya chuckled a bit before relaxing her shoulders, sighing, “It’s good talking to you, man. Is there anything else we need to talk about here or are we done?”
“Just a couple of more questions about the job here. Is there anything you think you can improve on when it comes to your performance?”
“Are you serious?”
“I may be Captain Victory but I have a job like you do and these are questions I have to have answers for. Sorry, Mya.”
“Well,” she replied, “I suppose I could try and be there more for the customers and take time to make sure everyone’s taken care of.”
Clark smiled and nodded. “I like that answer,” he said matter-of-factly, “Do you see yourself in a leadership role in the future?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Mya stated, confidence in her tone but almost a wink in spirit. “I think I could eventually get to lead a team someday.”
The manager said, “Well, we’ll see. You’re not getting the secret closet, though. When I leave this store, that’s coming with me.”
Mya cracked a sly smile and said, “Heh, like I’ll need a closet. I’ll just have a tunnel installed so I can exit discreetly and return before my shift is up.”
Clark nodded and held his fingers to his chin thinking it over, “You know, saying that, now. You bring up a good point. Having metahumans know about other metahumans would help floor coverage a little bit more.
“I got your back there, boss,” Mya laughed before standing up. “Is there anything else we need to go over?”
“No, no, no that’s everything I need. Thanks again for coming in, Mya and I appreciate the discretion. I’ll see if I can’t make the necessary changes happen sooner rather than later.” Clark stands up to shake Mya’s hand and watches her leave the office, closing the door behind her. He sat back down and ran a hand through his hair, letting a heavy breath escape his lips. Unfortunately, that heavy breath caused the chair to slam against the wall, leaving a noticeable divot and paint scraping. Clark’s eyes rolled back at the minor repair work ahead of him.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Future Quest #1 Review








Future Quest #1



Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Evan Shaner and Steve Rude with Steve Buccellato


                Years before, the last of a proud group of space protectors watches in horror as his comrades give their lives for the planet they called home. In the ashes of civilization, he kneels alone in a sad, pyhrric victory. In the present day, The Quest family investigates strange interdimensional phenomena in the Florida Everglades. Johnny Quest, boy adventurer, along with his friend and adopted brother Hadji, fly out on jetpack while under the watchful eye of Race Bannon and family dog Bandit. Meanwhile, at the Quest compound, noted scientist Dr. Benton Quest is joined by special agents Ray Randall and Deva Sumadi. Unbeknownst to them all, the phenomenon they are studying will open paths to worlds unforeseen and dangers unimaginable.

                When Cartoon Network had first launched, I was around thirteen years old. I had already heard of Space Ghost and The Herculoids via other shows from earlier in my childhood. But characters like Shazzan, Mightor, The Galaxay Trio and Birdman, Frankenstein Jr., Johnny Quest, and the Impossibles were not properly on my viewing radar until I saw them on Cartoon Network. They were incredibly formulaic, but also interesting to watch and fun to enjoy despite their simplicity in both writing and animation. I look back on those days fondly as something of a hold-over of my life-long love of superheroes before coming back into comics later in life.

                Reading Future Quest #1, I’m reminded of writer Jeff Parker’s 2014 revival of King Feature Syndicate’s comic strip heroes, King’s Watch. As an unashamed “Defenders of The Earth” fan, I couldn’t help but feel a swell of giddy pride seeing these titans of my childhood return to form. In the first issue of this miniseries, I would dare say Jeff Parker has rekindled my love for the Hanna Barbera heroes of days gone by. It was like walking into the living room and being reintroduced to old friends who have still been around, but haven’t seen them in a long time.

                There’s an energy to the pencils and coloring in this issue that harken back to the recently deceased comic artist and scribe Darwyn Cooke (who is given special thanks in the credits). While it doesn’t gritty itself up to make it seem more “adult” and “mature” it’s also not so cartoonish as to be disengaging and not being able to take seriously. From the first pages opening up to a planet-wide apocalypse on a distant alien world, to the reintroduction of boy adventurer Johnny Quest, the artwork is amazing and captures the feel of the art style of the old cartoons, but with a more modern aesthetic. These character designs didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, slight Birdman redesign aside. Even the reveal of long-time nemesis of the Quest family Doctor Zin retains his original design.
               
                Johnny Quest flies right off the page, ever the intrepid boy adventurer and risk taker. His devoted friend and brother Hadji still the stalwart, but equally precocious companion joins in the hijinks that inevitably ensure whenever the two are out and about in potentially dangerous territory. Race Bannon continues to be an action minded caretaker and bodyguard and Benton Quest is still the good-natured and well-meaning super scientist he’s always been. These are the same characters from the cartoons and it’s great to see them back as they were in their heyday in terms of characterization.

                Alluding to the Birdman redesign earlier, I liked how he was handled in this story as well. I can tell right away from the way he’s drawn and colored before I heard his name or saw the faithful purple falcon Avenger. Benton Quest even remarks that Birdman (also known as Ray Randall)’s voice carries, keeping in tune with his voice in his show. Seeing him don the costume (after saying a really cool mantra) and shout “BIRDMAN,” I was immediately sold and would absolutely buy a series based on the Solar Centurion.

                I liked that there were a couple of new characters as well to give support and expand the world a little more. Despite their inclusion, they weren’t given all that much to do except give their names and brief backstory. The introduction of TY and his blunt force exposition was a little forced, but it wasn’t distracting from the action. Also Agent Deva Sumadi provides a good human companion for Birdman as she seems to know his secrets already and is fully accepting them as a fellow agent. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

                I think it’s a good move that the story DOESN’T try to cram in every hero in the first issue, merely showing them in portals visible by Johnny and Hadji. We see the Herculoids (even the collapsed body of the Triceratops-like Tundro in the Florida swamp), the gigantic genie Shazzan, the outline of Space Ghost’s ship, the Galaxy Trio, Mightor, and even Jan and Jace, Space Ghost’s faithful wards. While they haven’t yet had time to shine, I’m hoping they’ll get a chance to shine in future issues. And there’s the possible inclusion of others that weren’t shown in the story as of yet. The possibilities are tantalizing.  

                I mentioned earlier the similarities to Jeff Parker’s King’s Watch, and I mean that as both a favorable point and a mark of slight criticism. While I hesitate to call it a rip-off as there are differences to make it stand out, it does bear a striking resemblance to King’s Watch in its premise, plot and at least in one or two regards, characterizations. Johnny Quest could easily be a much younger Flash Gordon; Benton Quest has something of a Zarkov-esque quality despite his good nature. The plot introduces the characters via collaborating on invasion from portals opening from other worlds/time periods, an old foe of one of the main characters shows its face with a concerted effort to hinder the heroes before they can begin to mobilize, capitalizing on the opening of said portals. Though it is the first issue and comparisons can be gleaned, it is too early to say it’s a rehash. It doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the issue or the story so far. That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it.

Bottom Line: Future Quest #1 is a fun start to what I am hoping is a wonderful series featuring the heroes of old, showing that they’ve still got what it takes to be exciting in this age of modernization and grim-dark makeovers.

8.8 out of 10.