Hated and Feared

As much as I don’t want to admit it, the most surprising thing about last week’s X-Men: Hellfire Gala #1 is how much it surprised me.

I don’t mean that in the sense of, “The plot twists were so shocking that I didn’t see them coming.” Really, the X-Men franchise has maybe three go-to comic central plots when it comes to its big twists, and the one at the center of this particular issue is the one that I feel has been most overused in the past 20 years: “ALL OF THE MUTANTS DIE.” It’s a cheap shot at the reader’s sympathies — who doesn’t want to root for the underdog survivors of a literal genocide, after all — and, in part because of its scale and also the fact that this is the third time we’ve seen it in the last two decades, the cheapest… and yet, here it is again.

Even that wasn’t the most surprising thing about the issue, though. (It is, nonetheless, surprising that we’re going back to that well that has been demonstrated twice now to not be quite the nuclear option that it would appear: who knew that it was so easy to reverse. genocide?) Also surprising, but not that surprising: that there are something like six different art teams throughout the issue, as if everyone were running to make the print deadline at the last minute… which is probably the case, let’s be real.

No, what’s so surprising about Hellfire Gala is just how obviously cynical the entire enterprise is. There’s no… spirit or soul to it; it’s workmanlike and there purely to hit specific moments to sell future comics. Why is Ms. Marvel resurrected and given so much prominence at the start of the issue, when it has little bearing on the larger story? To sell the Ms. Marvel: The New Mutant comic advertised in the back pages. Why do some mutants inexplicably survive the genocide? Because they’re the ones in the spin-off books. Why is the genocide created in such a way that there’s a blindingly obvious get-out clause? Because this is going to be reversed because nothing is permanent or has meaning beyond selling the next quarter’s worth of comic book issues.

I’m not surprised that all of this is the case; I’m surprised that there’s no real attempt to hide any of it, that there’s only the lightest attempt to weave the mandated targets and jumping-off points into an actual story, as opposed to a series of barely connected sales pitches to keep buying and buying and buying. In that respect, perhaps X-Men: Hellfire Gala is the endpoint of contemporary superhero comics: one that dispenses with the pretense and just embraces that you just want an excuse to keep going. And that, maybe, is the most surprising thing of all.

With Headphones On, You Won’t Hear That Much

In one of the least surprising developments of the year, I have become utterly obsessed with Blur’s new album, The Ballad of Darren. It’s a new Damon Albarn project, it’s a new Blur project, and it’s a melancholic album about aging and loss and regret; it’s absolutely catnip for this particular droog, which feels entirely appropriate on several levels.

I’m telling you this not to exhort you to give it a listen yourself — although you should, of course; it’s a genuinely lovely, gentle middle-aged album, for want of a better way to put it — or to pick apart the ways in which it both sounds like and unlike Blur as they’ve traditionally presented themselves. I’m not even writing this to point out the really odd, unexpected influence of late-era Bowie on the album even though I’m very curious where that’s coming from and who’s bringing it. (Albarn? Graham Coxon, maybe?)

Instead, I’m sharing this because I heard this album for the first time during San Diego Comic-Con. It was released on the Friday of the show, and I first heard it wandering through the San Diego streets walking to and from the show, and I wonder if there’s something about that experience that’s changed the way I heard it, and will always think about it from now on.

It’s not simply that it was an odd show that for many reasons — primarily, the emotional state of those around me, and my own aging and aching — left me at times in a melancholy mood of my own that echoed the album’s tone and left me receptive to everything it’s all about, although that counts, of course. It’s that there’s something about hearing music almost ambiently initially before you have a chance to really pay attention to it is a strangely, wonderfully hypnotic experience. I didn’t have a chance to properly listen to The Ballad of Darren until I got back from the show, by which point I already had memories and experiences attached to it: “This sounds like that moment I was turning onto Fifth Avenue, and the crowds started picking up,” or “This is the walk back to the hotel at midnight, when the streets started transforming into local party people instead of nerds up late,” or whatever.

There’s something about this feeling, the immediate nostalgia that feels at once authentic and lived-in that I’m trying to fully understand with as I listen to the album over and over right now. The feeling that it’s at once brand new and already part of my personal history.

It Must Be (1)

As I write this, it’s 3AM on Sunday, July 23rd. It’s my last night — well, last morning now — in San Diego, and insomnia has struck.

I could blame the hotel bed, which is almost the archetypal hotel bed: a little too soft, a little formless and with pillows that are more like suggestions of pillows that are somehow too soft and too hard all at once; pillows that you almost have to ignore in order to sleep in the first place, never mind struggle against when your mind won’t stop talking in the middle of the night.

Or perhaps I could blame the fact that it’s a Saturday night/Sunday morning, which has meant a lot of noise in the corridor outside in the last few hours as people return back from drunken nights out and slam all their doors and giggle loudly, in both cases fully believing that they’re being really, really quiet. That was fun to eavesdrop on, and truth be told, it was what originally woke me up an hour or so ago.

That’s not why I’m still awake, though. My mind is racing because I’m headed into the final day of San Diego Comic-Con and it’s been a weird, busy — very busy — and emotionally taxing show, one that’s left me at once exhausted and oddly exhilarated. I both can’t believe it’s almost over and can’t remember fully what life was like before this, if that makes sense.

By the time you read this, it’ll be tomorrow and I’ll be back in Portland again, likely better rested and reality will be reasserting itself. That’s why I wrote this, though; to record a moment in time when I couldn’t sleep in San Diego, and I realized that all I really want to do, despite everything, is just read some comics. I guess that shows the power of Comic-Con, somehow.

San Dieg-Oh No

As you read this, I’m in San Diego for this year’s Comic-Con; as I write, it’s still weeks away, which can mean only one thing: the anxiety has started kicking in.

What’s funny is, by the time this runs, the anxiety will be over and done with; once I actually get to San Diego, a zen state overcomes me, and I’m just there, dealing with whatever happens as it happens with an outlook that is, genuinely, surprisingly laid back about the whole thing. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t still get nervous about moderating panels; that’s still very much a thing.) But before the show…?

As I write this, I’m nervous about so much to do with San Diego Comic-Con, but really, it’s being nervous about all these related and connected things that aren’t actually the show itself: I’m nervous about whether or not I’ll buy new clothes and new shoes for the show — the shoes, especially, I need but I also need to get them and break them in, in advance; there’s a lot of walking at SDCC — and whether or not I’ll remember to get a new laptop bag to replace the one that fell apart in the UK. I’m nervous about my workload and if it will be too much, and the timing of my flights in and out of the city; I’m nervous about how comfortable or not the hotel bed will be, and how big the room will be, considering it’ll be both Chloe and myself working there. Will I have enough time to see everyone I want to? (No.) Will I eat well? Will I forget to pack something impossibly important? Will I disappoint my bosses? Will I disappoint anyone?

Traveling is always a Schrödinger experience for me — or, rather, preparing to travel is. There’s all this excitement and eagerness, but everything is also filled with this anxiety bucket of random nervousness and insecurity, as well. At least by the time you read this, all that will be over with.

(And then it’s just the marathon race of a five day convention…!)

But the Future

There was a period a few weeks back where this site was getting bombarded by spam comments. Out of nowhere, there would be somewhere in the region of 30-50 spam comments daily, all of them either auto-generated by some nefarious AI that had been fed information on fashion designers of the 1970s and ‘80s — yeah, I don’t know why either, but all of the comments were related in some way to ‘70s and ‘80s designers; go figure — or were cut and pasted from some arcane essay somewhere. Either way, there was one comment that kept repeating, over and over, for the week or so that the spam attack kept happening:

“But the future is fascinating.”

That was it: one line, as opposed to the multi-paragraph comments that surrounded it every time it appeared. “But the future is fascinating.” Everything else would refer to Karl Lagerfeld or Ray Halston or whoever, just screeds of theorizing about what they brought to the fashion scene of the era, but then there would be this singular line that would reappear daily. The future is fascinating.

I love that line; the more I saw it as I deleted the various comments, the more I loved it. Sure, it’s almost certainly as random and automatically generated as everything around it, but it stood out and felt unusually important and filled with potential for something good or ill: “fascinating,” after all, could mean either.

It’s stuck with me in the weeks since, and I keep thinking about it on a worryingly regular basis. Out of a spam nowhere, I think I’ve found my ideal approach to life from now on. If nothing else, dear friends, let us always remember to keep our futures fascinating. We can but hope.


After watching the impossibly fun Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One the other day — a movie as fast moving and enjoyable as that title is clunky and awkward — I found myself remembering the fact that, when Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible movie came out back in 1996, it was accompanied by a high-profile version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme music by the unfamous half of U2, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton.

More importantly, that version of the theme (every bit as uninspired and mid-90s as you would expect) was released as a single where the B-sides were remixes by dance producers, one of whom was Dave Clarke. Clarke’s contribution to the whole enterprise was to, bluntly, turn up the bass and make everything sound squelchy. (It was better than the U2 version, if nothing else.) There was a review in one of the music weeklies as the time that likened it to a bunch of spiders running over a synthesizer that had been left turned on by accident, a description that was enough to make me buy the single out of curiosity.

I mention all of this because it got me thinking about how much the music weeklies of that era impacted me: how easily swayed I was by their reviews, sure, but how much of their attitude and (in retrospect, painfully fake) confidence and swagger made me a believer and shaped my future career without my knowing.

It’s the 1990s Britpop era of the NME and Melody Maker (and monthly magazines like Select and Q) that demonstrated what could be done to write about pop culture as it was happening all around you in real time, and how that could be addressed as a fan but also a cynic, and that those two things weren’t really in opposition. That taught me how to temper your love for and belief in something with humor, too — thinking about writers like David Quantick or Steven Wells or Caitlin Moran, and how funny they were, as well as being insightful, angry, or whatever else was in their heads as the deadline approached.

I hadn’t realized it until I remembered the spiders on the keyboard line, close to three decades later, but the music writing I was reading in my late teens and early 20s accidentally showed me how to do the job I do today, and remember that it’s both ridiculous and oddly important. Another hidden part of my DNA.

Power Pachyderms

My brain is turning things over these days, weighing things up and trying to figure things out. I can feel it happening in the background at times; an itching of small electricity somewhere inside, like sparks happening in the dark, things starting to come together.

There’s something I’m trying to do for work — a format I’m trying to work out for something, and a voice I’m trying to find for it — that is, in theory, not anything timely or urgent, but I can feel it shifting around in my head more and more these days, pushing itself around as if to tell me that it’s going to happen soon. It’s not a conscious thing, I feel compelled to clarify; I’m not sitting in a chair and thinking to myself I must break this format or else calamity, because that alone is a recipe for disaster and disappointment alike. I’m staying away from the “dis” words for now as much as possible.

Instead, it’s something I can feel moving when I’m doing dishes or cleaning the house. I’ve been going on more walks by myself lately, listening to music and getting some exercise, but I think that’s also subconsciously an attempt to let my brain wander and find the edges of this particular jigsaw at the same time without putting undue pressure on myself: just trying to clear space and see what happens.

It’s all an odd feeling, nonetheless; this sense of something unfolding in the background and fumbling around without looking to find something I’m not even sure about in the process. More than that, the strange part might be knowing that it’s all happening, feeling it in some weird, inexplicable manner, and trying not to think about it or focus on it at the same time so that I don’t interrupt whatever magic might be taking place.

Don’t think of pink elephants.


Every now and then, I ask myself why I’m doing any of this. By “this,” I mean, writing this blog and publishing random thoughts and ramblings when there are countless other things that I could be doing with my time, not the least of which could be sleeping. (Only joking; it’s summer or close enough, which means I’m awake by 5:30 no matter what, now, no matter when I go to sleep. I’m so tired, friends.)

Really, though; there are times when I start typing here and not knowing exactly where I’m going. The thing is, I think that’s the point. I’ve been writing professionally for more than a decade at this point, and writing publicly but unpaid for far, far longer — if we’re counting my student newspaper days, it gets close to three decades, shockingly — and I’ve come to trust in two truths along that time:

  1. I make sense of the world through writing.
  2. Writing is a skill that requires you both to keep your muscles in good shape through practice, but also to play, so that it stays fun and you learn new things to keep yourself engaged.

That’s what I’m doing here: I’m playing — doing this for me, and writing about what I want, no matter how self-indulgent and pointless that will be to others — while also putting things down on virtual paper to try and find out what happening around me and in my head. That other people are reading (I know of three friends who do, although I try not to think of them while writing because this is a space for me, dammit) is something I try to ignore: I don’t want to second guess the rambling, pointless nature of things, I guess.

Welcome to my brain; I’m sorry for the mess.