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Summer’s here, and the time is right… For getting hooked on a new serial podcast!

Maybe you’re packing the kids in the car for a long road trip vacation—and you’re looking for some “theater of the mind” entertainment that doesn’t involve another screen. Or maybe you’re just a lover of genre fiction—one, as ever, on the lookout for a snappy sci-fi concept, beaucoup action, and a longform adventure where a slew of vividly-drawn characters grapple with almost ludicrously long odds to help humanity slip free of the destructive designs of an otherworldly threat.

Either way it’s time you subscribed to Artifact X—my engaging new (and free to listen!) episodic audiobook/podcast hybrid available across several digital platforms like Apple podcasts, Spreaker, and streaming at its own dedicated website.

Artifact X is a work of middle grade fiction. In the mold of series like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Harry Potter, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, it is specifically written for young people ages 8-13.

And Artifact X asks, “How do you save the world—while you’re grounded?”

Set amidst the excitement of youth robotics competitions, Artifact X tells the story of Brant Haughton. Brant is a military family kid growing up on the army base his father helps command. Joining Brant is Thu Tran, his ready-for-anything best friend; Dana Granadillo, the hyperbrainy, headline-grabbing school genius Brant and Thu must recruit as a cohort; Uncle Clive, Brant’s luckless auto mechanic relative; and E.R.V.E.R.E., an avenging angel of a nearly all-powerful alien A.I. warrior who—it turns out—desperately needs Brant’s help.

Just how does a fearless, bristling-with-the-tools-of-war, spacefaring robot from a whole other arm of the Milky Way come to rely on a crew of kids?

You’ll have to ask disgraced former U.S. Astronaut Gerald P. Rathburn. After all, it was his blunder that set up the whole dire situation our planet is facing.

Rathburn may have had “the right stuff” to be on the crew of NASA’s 2nd Apollo-Soyuz Test Mission in 1974. But now this gangly, white-maned old man is most definitely is bursting with “the wrong stuff.” Especially when it comes to keeping the human species off the extinction list.

As the years slipped by, Rathburn became more and more bitter about how the likes of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong had rendered him a mere footnote in the history of America’s space program. And one evening, decades ago, Rathburn shot off his mouth about this on the wrong radio call-in show. Exactly no one in the listening audience of Houston, Texas, had tuned in to the broadcast that night.

But something millions of miles distant, in deep space, did. And now Earth has been secretly invaded. And Rathburn, for the time being anyway, is the only man on the planet who knows.

As our story kicks off one stiflingly hot Saturday morning in San Antonio, Brant is consumed by a personal problem that, to him, sometimes seems as potentially disastrous as alien invasion.

That problem is this: everyone Brant knows has some special talent. Except him.

Brant’s older sister is a star student and athlete. Thu, Brant’s best friend, is a budding sculptor racking up awards and scholarships every time he turns around. And there isn’t a car or motorcycle that Uncle Clive can’t fix.

All his life Brant has been searching for that one singular thing to be the best at.  But after trying and failing every sport and after-school club there is, he’s now almost certain he has become a “quitter.” He is doomed, it seems, to be a failure at life.

But Brant has one hobby left to—perhaps—prove himself with. And luckily, it’s the one he thinks is the most jaw-droppingly cool of them all.

The Robo-Ruckus competition is where kids make homemade robots from scratch and duel their remote-controlled gladiators in front of cheering crowds.  Brant has now staked his entire future on whether or not he can win the Robo-Ruckus.

But he’ll have to seriously do it on the down-low. That’s because his father worries that high tech is taking over the human-based, spit and polish old military traditions he reveres. In other words, Brant’s dad hates robots. And if he catches his son competing in a Robo-Ruckus again, he has threatened to send our hero away to a military academy thousands of miles away from everything Brant knows and cares about.

Given the sinister alien adversary that has secretly invaded Earth, though, Brant is about to learn what a real threat looks like.

Our hero’s amateur, self-taught robot engineering skills will turn out to be just about the only thing that can stop the Earth from being reduced to a thinning, lifeless cloud of water vapor and rocky debris—consigned to float forever between the orbits of Venus and Mars.

For Brant is about to stumble upon what he and his friends soon come to call “Artifact X.”

Artifact X is a baffling, unidentifiable something that Brant unearths in a junkyard he and his buddy have been combing for discarded electronics to turn into robot parts. If Brant can crack the mystery of what he’s found and learn to control it, every man, woman, child, and animal just might stand a longshot, last-ditch chance to live past next week. But he’s going to have to wrestle with and learn to overcome his quitter attitude every step of the way.

Artifact X is written, produced, and narrated by me with some occasional help from voiceover artists like L.A. talk radio legend and impressionist Brian Whitman, and Peter Miller, whose  vocal stylings have been entertaining crowds for years at Universal Studios. Sound effects are the creation of San Francisco Bay Area-based musician and sound designer Nathan Moody.

Each episode of Artifact X consists of one or more chapters of the book. While the podcast is being released in weekly updates, audiences don’t have to sweat this original story petering out. The plot has been fully scripted in its entirety. And it builds up to one barnburner of a climax!

I have always loved audible storytelling. As a kid I placed myself under self-hypnosis at regular intervals with The Story of Star Wars, a 1977 abridged version of A New Hope released on vinyl records—and through friends I later discovered the BBC radio adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and more. It has been a thrill to experience the digital age making the production and distribution of this kind of content so seamless and rewarding. The undertaking has even inspired me to design a popup recording studio using off-the-shelf hardware that can be set up or struck in minutes!

But mostly I have found podcasting to be a smashing way to bring Artifact X, which I first started writing as a book in the early 2000s, to those who want to hear it.

I started quietly releasing updates of Artifact X some months ago. So by the time you’re reading this there are already several hours’ worth of quality audiobook chapters waiting for you.

Subscribe to Artifact X on Apple Podcasts or listen here at the Artifact X website.

And listen: we authors depend more and more on your feedback and reviews to get our work discovered by those who would also enjoy it. So may I implore you! Leave a review of Artifact X on whatever service you happen to use to listen to it through. And spread the word about this free audiobook!

It is a tremendous pleasure to be able to finally part the curtains and announce my latest book: the nonfiction biography Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic Story of an American Founding Father. It will be published August 8, 2017, by Penguin Random House imprint Ten Speed Press.

I know what you’re thinking. An Alexander Hamilton graphic novel really comes as a surprise to no one. Am I right? After all, there is one marquee reason why our nation’s premiere “man behind the man” and first Treasury Secretary, as a subject, has suddenly detonated with high-yield topicality.

No—that marquee reason is not so much because of the Broadway smash Hamilton: An American Musical. Though clearly that cultural sensation has not put a crimp in the man’s knack for staying relevant. (By the way, Hamilton lived with an abiding, personal fantasy of bucking tremendous odds to become the stuff of myth and legend. The big stage musical and all the attention it has garnered has done more to fulfill that fantasy than any statue, society, or doorstop-sized monograph that have graced the man since his 1804 death.)

It’s a better time than ever for an Alexander Hamilton nonfiction graphic book because we Americans have seldom argued so voraciously about what the proper size, scope, and mission of the federal government should to be. And you can’t even start having that conversation until you get to know Alexander Hamilton.

Such was his supercharged influence in the 1780s and 1790s, when the United States as a nation was just getting underway, that the term “Hamiltonian” has literally come to define one entire pole of the two time-honored approaches to American government.

The bare essence of the “Hamiltonian” tradition is “big government.” (Though it must be understood that both what was considered appropriate and what was actually possible in the late 18th Century barely scales to today). Hamiltonian politics are marked by a strong, energetic president and a less eminent Congress; weighty and far-reaching federal government projects paid for by taxes and the taking on of debt; urban-oriented banking and manufacturing interests dominating agriculture; an extensive and well-funded military; and a robust enforcement of federal law over state prerogatives.

As an idea, Hamiltonian politics have always been the whipping boy of the other pillar of American governmental philosophy. This alternative tradition—which swiftly took over in Hamilton’s later years and reigned for decades—is of course credited to Hamilton’s archrival Thomas Jefferson. To say nothing of political parties, since they have changed over time far more than most Americans give them credit for, the modern conservative movement largely springs from Jeffersonian political ideals.

Getting to know Hamilton, his life, his personality, and his times, is to examine the very chromosomes of American politics and culture. To understand where he came from is to begin to understand where we came from.

But wait. Other than a primer to help appreciate where we’ve been and get a handle on our current political times, there’s a whole other reason to pick up a good Hamilton book.

The man was a mercurial, thrusting, larger-than-life character whose years traced an incredible roller coaster of triumphs and misfortunes. During the American Revolution Hamilton often took to battle with the ardor of a man embracing a death-wish. After years of willing subordination as an aide de camp to the towering physical and authoritative presence of George Washington, one minor insult whipped Hamilton into such a froth of indignation that he told the general off. Hamilton’s high-octane opinions on law and leadership blew the powdered wigs off half the luminaries at the convention where they wrote the U.S. Constitution. And no great man of his time had a better capacity for dealing himself self-inflicted wounds. We see this when Hamilton became the center of a roiling, oh-no-he-didn’t public sex scandal. And then, as if he had learned nothing, Hamilton made himself the scourge of the very political movement he’d helped build. This he achieved by taking public and doubling down on the fierce criticism he had whispered about one of his movement’s own leaders.

To put this another way, Hamilton was all but a headline-grabbing, love him or love-to-hate-him reality star of the Early Republic. His biography is such a sawtooth pattern such of tragedy and success that you have to see it to believe it. No other Founding Father’s story deserves the immersive and cinematic telling that the talents of illustrator Justin Greenwood and color artist Brad Simpson bring to life, and I am so proud to have collaborated with them on this book.

I have seen it wisely put that the Founding Era of the United States was a particularly “deliberative” moment in world history. A time unlike almost any other.

Why is that?

Because, arguably, never before had so many people had the chance to seize control of their political destiny and influence their future. That is why we who came generations—even many generations—later owe such honor and allegiance to what was said, done, thought, and written immediately preceding and following on from the American Revolution.

Given the political upheavals of the last years, it is hard not to think that Americans (and not Americans alone) are facing another great deliberative moment.

This is why it is so crucial right now to turn back to the stories, testaments, and works of the people who were lucky enough to survive the Revolutionary War—and also happened to be talented and tenacious enough to define why and for what that blood had been shed.

Like my other books, Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of American Founding Father takes thorough and wide-ranging research and uses the comics medium to breathe life into history that is, all too often, far less rewarding to read in conventional form.

To produce the book, hundreds upon hundreds of images were culled from books and archives. This makes every panel rich with accurate and historical detail, from French and Indian War weapons and uniforms to the route of George Washington’s funeral procession.

The rich resources of the Huntington Library, the Library of Congress, and the National Park Service have been brought to bear to insure that this work can stand both aside and apart from any other Hamilton book out there. And lastly, it gives me pleasure to note that I have already written somewhat extensively about Hamilton in two out of my three previous books: 2008’s The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and 2013’s The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Getting the chance to devote an entire book to him was amazing.

Unlike George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton did not make an appearance in my 2015 co-authored The Comic Book Story of Beer.

But—believe it or not—Hamilton did play a part in a whoppingly influential episode that figures both into the history of American beer and the history of American and international jurisprudence!

So think of my next blog piece to come as a Comic Book Story of Beer and Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father crossover. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, you are cordially invited to check out the dedicated Alexander Hamilton website, preorder the book, and be on track to get all the true history that the musical leaves on the other side of Broadway’s velvet rope.

 

A short piece I wrote for The Washington Post
this weekend concurs with the decision of the
City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday, February 6, to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent public city park in that city.

I believe this was the right thing for the duly-elected local representatives of the people of Charlottesville to do. However, my argument does not so much stand on the basis of Lee as a defender of the vile institution of slavery. It is true that Lee was not at all an outspoken proponent of human bondage. But as eventual General-In-Chief of the armies of the Confederate States, the fact that his personal attachments to slavery were only mild certainly damns him with faint praise.

(Lee inherited about 70 slaves from his father-in-law when that man died in 1857. The venerated Confederate general abided by the wishes of his wife’s father when he manumitted, or legally freed them, in accordance to the will of George Washington Custis, which stipulated they were to remain in service for five more years. Before that time came, however, Lee in 1859 ordered three runaway slaves severely beaten, sending for a local constable to do the job when one of his own plantation overseers refused to, and standing by close at hand to ensure maximal pain was inflicted. Later, when the Civil War broke out, Lee sent other slaves in his charge to toil further within the Confederate interior to discourage them from seeking their freedom behind Union lines.)

Instead, my argument for removal the statue (or alternatively radically altering its presentation) is that Lee is undeserving because he committed the act of treason against the United States.

Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” And Lee’s actions from 1861-1865 are prima facie evidence that he undertook just this. His commission of the crime is valid despite the fact that the Lincoln Administration and subsequent postwar authorities chose never to put Lee on trial for treason.

The prosecutorial forbearance was by design. In the wake of the war most officers of the federal government were chiefly concerned with rebuilding and reuniting the war-torn country, not persecuting and making grisly examples of secession’s perpetrators and the legions who followed them.

Only a single Confederate officer, Captain Henry Wirz, was ever convicted and executed for war crimes. And even the treason trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was abandoned before a sentence was ever issued. Even Aaron Burr, whose putative attempts to provoke disunion were trifling in comparison, had to sit through a whole trial.

Treason is not a charge to be thrown around lightly. In fact, the Founding Fathers were acutely sensitive to the term’s flagrant and damaging abuse under the monarchy of Great Britain, where one could brutally drawn and quartered for, for example, being Catholic, trespassing on royal hunting grounds, or forging counterfeit shillings. The Founders were so adamant that treason be as narrowly defined as possible in the republic they were constructing that it is the only criminal charge spelled out in the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land.

And as I seek to point out in the piece, no one need cling to a cravenly legalistic, morally blind, paper definition of treason to rightly impugn Lee and the Confederacy, either.

The United States of America would have no moral standing as an independent nation if rebellion was unjustifiable in all cases. There are circumstances that indeed make levying war against and adhering to the enemies of a country a moral imperative. The American Revolution, in which colonists wholly unrepresented in their government stood up to the forces of King George III and colluded militarily with Britain’s enemy, King Louis XVI of France, continues to stand as a defining example. To briefly recap what I set out in the Post, the set of circumstances that gave rise to the Civil War were worlds away from those of the American Revolution because the Southern states had enjoyed not only fair but excessive, preferential representation in the U.S. government.

In the State of Virginia’s own convention in which the Constitution was ratified, the delegates made plain that if the federal government “perverted” its powers to cause the state “injury” or “oppression,” it would consider the sovereignty of its people infringed and the state’s attachment to the union rendered null. However, I have yet to be persuaded how the undisputedly fair election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—the development that set off the first wave of secession in the South—arose to a “perversion” of the Constitution.

The federal government was furthermore acting under its constitutionally delegated powers under Article I, Section 8 to call forth the Virginia militia to aid it to “suppress insurrections and repel invasions” (which, by virtue of the Militia Act of 1795, Congress legislatively delegated to the Executive Branch and never bothered to take back).

And it is this latter act that has gone down in history as what compelled Virginia—after an initial overwhelming vote in February, 1861 to remain with the Union—to secede. Robert E. Lee, after soul searching, went along with his home state.
So the secessionists in the “cotton states” had nothing close to justifiably revolutionary grounds. Virginia had played a fundamental role in writing the rules of the American republic. And she had seen to it that those rules would be tweaked in her favor (including Thomas Jefferson’s behind-closed-doors angling to get the seat of government on the Potomac rather than in Philadelphia or Baltimore as others had proposed). Yet when a single election did not go their way, they could not abide remaining in the Union. And most Virginians ultimately could not abide siding against them. Not even when a last-minute “unamendable amendment” that would forever negate the federal government’s ability to disestablish slavery in the states it existed was offered.

Lee, so exalted as a man of honor, broke the oath he had taken in 1829 to bear true allegiance to the United States of America and obey the orders of the commander-in-chief of its military. This vow he freely swore at the culmination of his education (paid for in full by by the taxpayers of the United States, South and North) at West Point, where as a young man he graduated 2nd in his class. Lee turned his back on some of his own most dearly-held beliefs. All the more reason to think twice about the value of states and municipalities endorsing him with public statuary.

Let’s face it. Statues like the one in Charlottesville don’t exist as simple reminders of history. They embody a very particular message.

Lost on many contemporary viewers is the historical significance of what kind of statue this is. To sculptors throughout the centuries, horses have been artistically challenging and expensive subjects to render. Few if any American artists had the wherewithal to produce them, and indeed even Charlottesville’s Lee statue had to be produced by an Italian immigrant. Equestrian statues have long been reserved for conquerors and symbols of militarism. Lee as a mounted horseman here carries a special, glorifying significance, designed not to invite critical engagement with the man and the legacy but to immortalize him as a gallant warrior—a “cavalier” as proponents of the Lost Cause like to say.

On the day Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue was presented to the public in 1924, it was draped in Confederate battle flags and attended by singing, all-white schoolchildren—who themselves were staged and dressed to present as a “living” Confederate flag.

Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy had planned and presided over the ceremony. The reigning head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was a Virginia fish and game official named W. McDonald Lee. During his recent reelection as “Commander-In-Chief” that organization, the convention thronged with attendees confirming they were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Reports in many contemporary newspapers suggest Mr. Lee himself was a Klansman. And Julian S. Carr, the Commander in Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, was an open and avowedly a member of the white supremacist terrorists.

Charlottesville’s Lee statue was not intended to chronicle the history of the Confederacy. It was intended to perpetuate it. In spirit if not in practice. That is the message of the statue—and why it is absurd leave the statue to stand as is, or regard it as a mere innocent signpost of a past era.

It is distasteful but absolutely unsurprising that protestors (including a Republican gubernatorial candidate) have denounced the Charlottesville City Council for conspiring to “rewrite history” and besmirch the heritage of the Commonwealth. These pro-Lee activists have compared those who want the statue removed to the hateful swine of the Islamic State—notorious for vandalizing and destroying Middle Eastern archeological sites with religious symbols that predate Islam. The pro-Lee activists have demeaned the Charlottesville City Council members as fascists and tyrants executing the gravest acts of political correctness.

These protestors are as wrong as they are laughable in the extreme of their rhetoric. For to consider their position sound is to believe that perpetuating the spirit of the Confederacy is an acceptable thing for a 21st century municipality to publicly endorse.
I cannot and would not speak for all those who want to see Confederate statues removed. In fact, I don’t doubt for a second that there are many among the ranks of the so-called “campus left” who would like to paper over American history and effectively make all evidence of the Confederacy disappear.

But my contention is the exact opposite.

Confederate history absolutely matters. We should never forget it.

And it’s because Confederate history matters that the statue should not stand as is.

In fact, Americans who choose to be involved in the political process and public affairs in any way should never stop thinking about Confederate history.

Because wrapped up in the history of the Civil War—and, yes, absolutely and unreservedly on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line— are all the evidences of our nation’s capacity to put economic issues ahead of human values; to distort, caricature, demonize, and exploit nonwhites; to place greed ahead of justice; to rush into warfare without a sober assessment of the suffering it will exact upon enemies and allies; to devolve into petty regionalism and ghettoization by ideology; and to demagogue and goad the vast and unprivileged majority into the service of the powerful few.

On the heels of his surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate general forbid his men to melt into the wilderness and sustain the fight through a prolonged campaign of guerilla warfare. Late in 1865, he humbly wrote Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant to request the restoration of his American citizenship. He signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. In the last years of his life, Lee quietly spent his energies reviving a small college in Virginia’s Great Valley. He chose to be buried in civilian clothes. These legendary acts of humility and contrition are, to my mind, singular examples we could all use some looking to in our political, professional, and personal lives. They leave the elder Lee ennobled and elevated.

That’s the kind of statue the public should see. And it’s the exact opposite of what the Charlottesville statue is.

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