Can’t Somebody See, Yeah

While everyone (including myself; I’m writing this ahead of time) is on Thanksgiving break, here are another couple of weeks’ worth of graphics from the THR weekly newsletter. Remember when that Terminator movie came out, and no-one really noticed?

I’m Not The King of Comedy

R.E.M.’s Monster just got reissued in a fancy, expanded anniversary edition — its been 25 years, shockingly, since it was released, which floors me; it came out on the same day I moved to Aberdeen for the start of my second year of art school, and I remember running to the local store to buy a copy before the 4-hour drive there in case I somehow missed it — and, although I checked out the new mix and the demos on Spotify (They’re fine), the thing that I keep thinking about more than anything is the packaging design of the album.

Everyone knows what the cover looks like, that garish orange and the out of focus bear head. The album, famously, is the most-returned CD in history, so it’s a familiar sight to any music fan of the last quarter century. The front cover is okay, it does the job, but it’s easily the most boring visual element of the album. It does the entire package a massive disservice.

Far more than the music — which I really like, to this day — the design on Monster blew my mind. (Perhaps more so, the design of the tour booklet that accompanied the album, which took the basic ideas and ran with them.) There was a bluntness and garishness to the decisions made, whether it was cutting things off in the wrong place or applying color overlays that made no sense, or considering television static as a design element strong enough to carry a booklet page by itself. Beyond that familiar orange cover, everything seemed to purposefully reject received design wisdom and do the “wrong” thing, yet still look attractive and exciting.

For someone in art school, especially someone starting a graphic design course, it was utterly exhilarating. I tried to learn from it by stealing, of course — I did the same thing for my other primary influence at the time, Dave McKean, which is funny to me now that I can recognize how much of McKean’s tricks were also just outright stolen from others — but was beaten back by teachers who told me that I was, simply, doing it wrong.

I was, of course, but not in the way they thought. They didn’t get the aesthetics I was working with, and so argued for the old school as they had to, because it’s what they knew. But what I was actually doing wrong was copying the Monster look instead of applying the attitude. Copying it wasn’t the right thing to do; I should have rejected it and built my own version, using the pop culture influences and mistakes inside my own head. But who is confident enough to do that at such a young age?

We Don’t Need No Education

It’s strange, sometimes, thinking about the things I’ve learned while making a living as a writer. I have no formal training as a journalist — a fact I think is occasionally shockingly obvious — yet I have, somehow, managed to make it as a professional writer for more than a decade by this point. (And as an unprofessional one for years before that; some might claim that I’ve never fully stopped being unprofessional, of course.)

A lot of that is down to luck, as much as anything. I really do have a career that has owed a lot to being in the right place at the right time, and from making connections accidentally, because I thought I was just making friends and then they asked if I’d want to help them with something in exchange for money. The lack of forethought and planning in my career is genuinely impressive, and similarly embarrassing; if my career had a theme song, it’d be Big Star’s “Thank You, Friends” on a loop, with extra emphasis on that “Thank you again!” refrain at the end.

But there’s also been more than my fair share of learning on the job, both through direct and intentional teachings — at Time, I had an amazing editor who taught me all kinds of things, not least of which how to structure and rework thinkpieces so they weren’t just me going “Oh! And!” over and over again — and from picking up on context clues left out by accident in the middle of a conversation.

One of those was a conversation before taking a regular gig at a site, when I learned the definition of shortform web versus longform — of course, this was in itself six or seven years ago by now, and the goal posts have shifted more than a little in that time. But I remember having to mask my feeling of, oh, now I get it, I didn’t know that, thanks when the prospective editor told me that he wanted multiple shortform pieces from me daily, no longer than 400 words. “You tend to write around 600, and that’s just too long for people reading quickly,” he said, a fact that got filed away and sticks in my head when writing professionally even now.

Most of these posts here, by the way, are between 300 and 400 words. Anything longer, and it feels like I’m taking up more time than a random thought deserves.

It’s Based On A Novel By A Man Named Lear

As genuinely unlikely as it seems to consider, I once almost had a career in television. This was decades ago now, around 1999, when I lived in Aberdeen still and was relatively active on what was becoming the internet that we know it today, an important part of this whole story.

I was on a message board, as it was called at the time, devoted to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles — “Barbelith,” it was called eventually, although it was “The Nexus” when I signed up; it was the ‘90s — and although I wasn’t very vocal there, scared of seeming stupid beside a bunch of far smarter people sharing their wisdom, it was an important part of my window into the rest of the internet, guiding me to people and places I couldn’t have hoped to have found any other way.

Because of those people and places, and because it was so early in the internet of things that no-one else around me knew this stuff, I gained somewhat of a reputation for being “the internet person.” I was asked to give a talk at the art school I was teaching at, at the time, about the potential of this brave new world (I did, and it was horrible, me stumbling through things I only half knew about awkwardly), and I was asked if I’d consider being on a new TV show to talk about what was hip on this world wide web thing, too.

The invitation came circuitously, I remember that; a friend of a friend was tasked with putting the show together for the local TV station, and I got tapped basically because I was local and, as a novice, would be cheap. I remember being told I would be one of three hosts, and that one of the others would be — dramatic gasp — an American, something seen to be a plus that automatically gave the project a continental cache.

It didn’t go far beyond that, sadly. The project was mothballed for reasons I don’t remember, although I do recall how relieved I was not to have to be on camera when I found out. Every now and then, I wonder what it would’ve been like had the show made it to pilot, or even air. Would I still have left Scotland for the US? Would I have become a writer? Or would I be presenting shows at 3am on Grampian TV, desperate and grateful just to still have a job onscreen…?

Making Plans In Public To Make Myself Say Yes

A random idea that I’m posting here in the hopes that it’ll prompt me to actually do it next year. I was reading the Draplin Design Co.: Pretty Much Everything book the other week, and there’s mention in there about how the company — really, its founder, Aaron James Draplin — approaches the corporate website, which could best be described by the phrase, “As if it was his personal zine from the 1980s,” which I respect the hell out of.

One thing he mentions — followed by a few pages of examples — is the graphic of the day, which is literally what it sounds like: each day, there’s a different graphic on the site, created by someone at DDC. I read that, and I thought, I want to try that.

Kind of.

One of the things I’ve done this year has been keep up this site in a more organized, intentional way. It was a discipline and an experiment at once; I came into 2019 a different person than I’d been and in a different life, and there was something about actually writing for myself here that felt like an important part of that — of rediscovering what I’d write here, given that chance, but also, of doing something for myself. I knew my limits, so I didn’t try to do daily posts, but I also knew how lazy I was and how easily I’d give up without structure, so I decided I would try to post three times a week. That seemed reasonable.

(I keep forgetting that this wasn’t a New Year thing for me; I started midway through January, for some reason.)

Anyway, so I’m thinking I’ll try to do a graphic of the workday thing, running Monday through Friday each week through all of next year, with the following rules to make things easier for me:

  • The graphics can be old or new.
  • The graphics might be photos, sketches, graphics or whatever else I decide. A visual element of some kind.
  • The graphics don’t have to be by me, although ideally they’d predominantly be.

I figure that I’ve had enough fun doing the THR graphics weekly — and that it’s been refreshing enough creatively — that this could be something good for me. If I choose to actually do it. I even have a name for the series, if it happens: 2020 Vision. Because, you see, it’d run through 2020.

Now. Let’s wait to see if I actually end up doing it.

Five For Tom Spurgeon

I wrote something for The Beat‘s collective tribute to Tom Spurgeon, but somehow it got utterly screwed up by the time it ran. Here’s the original.


In no particular order:

1. The thrill of recognition when I was starting out and realized that Spurgeon was reading me. He was the real deal, even then. (I’m old, I can say that.) To this day, I feel like he was being too polite when we’d talk and he wouldn’t just tell me to stop wasting his time.

2. The kindness he showed me when I had to bail on doing an interview with him because of my father’s death; I remember extremely clearly, more than a decade later, how much his down-to-earth reminders that what was happening was far more important than talking about comics helped at a time when I was, basically, a complete mess who thought that I couldn’t let anyone down about anything, no matter what.

(I did the interview on the plane home after the funeral; it was shitty because of where my head was at, and I’ve always felt bad that I wasn’t more entertaining or interesting; Spurgeon was pleasantly dismissive of such thoughts.)

3. His response when I told him that he and I were both on a Prominent Comic Creator’s private list worst case scenarios for comics journalists, along with a third I’m-not-naming-them-here journalist, as told to me by a mutual friend. The best word is probably “tickled”; he thought it was ridiculous and funny and confusing that the three of us were on the same list, but decided that it was probably a badge of honor for all three of us, somehow.

4. An email I got from him after he’d heard that an entirely separate Prominent Comic Creator tried to start a fight with me at a comic convention. It’s very silly, but having him write, “I got your back,” felt like… validation? Having someone I respected to that degree say something as simple as that about something that I was feeling pretty embarrassed about meant a lot. Also, considering the creator involved, the mental image of the two of them fighting is utterly amazing, trust me.

5. This essay:

It’s such a wonderful piece of writing, when viewed through an analytic eye, sure, but it’s also a wonderful encapsulation of Tom as I knew him; the last section, where he writes about sharing his story because he hopes it will make people get check-ups again, and “embrace the inevitable fragilities of getting older with good humor and perspective,” speaks well of him as not only a writer, but also as a person.

I’ve re-read it a couple of times since learning of his death, and it’s overwhelming right now. I know if he was here to read this and I said that to him, he’d say something funny to try and put my mind at ease, but also take pains not to undercut how sad I am. That he’d do that for me, when we weren’t especially close, says everything there is.

All That You Do, All That You Say

More graphics, as we head towards a year of doing these newsletters and the graphics for them. It’s become a ballast for the week, a sign of nearing the weekend and a welcome break from being in Writer Mode. I can’t imagine not doing them, now. I’d miss it.

Here We Are In Our

How did we get here?

I was struck with some surprise the other day that it’s midway through November already, meaning we’re almost at the end of the year, somehow. It all feels like a surprise, as if I’ve traveled through time and been deposited here without knowing it. Didn’t fall just start? Wasn’t it the end of summer just a couple of weeks ago?

Perhaps it’s age, or simply the odd near-singularity effect of 2019 in general that seems to feel as if time has collapsed in upon itself. Certainly, it feels like everything since… early September, maybe, has fallen together, the days filled with things and emotions and stuff that cascaded into each other. At one point, I was so busy (and, for a brief period, so sick) that I went six weeks between therapy appointments; when I returned, I spent the first session back just listing what had happened like a checklist, just to catch her up. She looked at me with an expression of, there’s more? the entire time.

And so, September — pet trauma, work stress, visitors to the house — became October — work trips, sickness, house cleaning and working to impress the landlords so we get to stay and not move — became November and everything blurs together.  My old mindset of considering new months as starting points disappeared because there was neither time nor perspective to think of things that way, anymore. Everything kept happening. Everything still keeps happening.

And now we’re here. Fall has, belatedly, taken hold and things are slowing down. I am catching my breath and finding the pockets of calm and peace necessary to me, and still, wondering how we got here without noticing. In the dark mornings and evenings outside the windows, I hope to find answers and quiet to fill the gaps.

Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Good Morning Good Morning Good

There’s something to be said for sunrises in fall here in Portland. This is what it looks like out of my window before I get up in the morning; I genuinely feel lucky to see this kind of thing, and also to wake up early enough that I get to see the sun rise each morning. (To be fair, up until last weekend, it happened after 7am and who isn’t awake by then?)