No Loitering

I can remember with surprising clarity the circumstances in which this photo was taken; I was walking around San Francisco in the evening, having just taken a meeting about my immigration status at the time. (I wasn’t a full citizen yet, but that was about to happen; that’s what the meeting was about.) I’d become obsessed with signage in the city, as well as images of decayed materials, so of course this called out to me. I didn’t realize at the time that I was going to leave the city for Portland within the year, but on some level, I must have known — before I left Aberdeen for the final time, I became equally obsessed with the signage in that city, too.

In contrast, I went through a Portland signage obsession maybe a year or so into arriving, and I’m still here, a decade later. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m going to stick around.

Hello Hello Hello

Last week, it was the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, something that took me by surprise — the anniversary, I mean, although it’s not as if I’d expected his death when it happened, either. Today is the anniversary of the discovery of his body; I’d never realized there was such a gap between death and discovery before.

As always happens in situations like this, the media was filled with reminiscences of where I was when I heard the news or how important Cobain was to me, to remind those who were there of how young and vital they used to feel, and to educate those who weren’t about who Kurt Cobain was.

I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan, although that was slowly changing when he died. Weirdly, I had a copy of In Utero, even though I didn’t own Nevermind, but beyond “Serve the Servants” and it’s ersatz Beatles riffing, I hadn’t listened that often. Nirvana felt part of the cultural conversation and I was curious, but not a believer, per se.

My main memory of Cobain’s death is, I suspect, a false one. Somehow, I remember myself in my hometown with a copy of the Melody Maker for that week, filled with tributes and memorials, reading through it and feeling a sadness not specifically about Cobain’s death but about not feeling the grief and loss as intently as others. I felt as if I was missing out, excluded from a moment that was momentous and important, purely because I didn’t get the music, or the band, in the “right” way.

Looking back now, I feel like Cobain’s death was in some way an early echo of Elliott Smith’s — that was the death that impacted me, that ripped my heart out and still saddens me deeply to this day. Maybe there’s only one musician whose death feels like a loss in your family for each person, and Cobain was too early for me. Maybe I was never a grunge fan. Or perhaps I was simply an outsider to the outsider genre.

I still read the thinkpieces and op-eds this month. It’s just that they remembered a time I was there for, but never really a part of.

My Back Pages

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately, for obvious reasons. But, specifically, I’ve been thinking about everything I’ve written in the past 20 years or so. In the version of my history that I tell myself, I “became” a writer in art school, first through the humor work I did for school newspaper and then, in the final year of my Bachelors degree and especially throughout my Masters, in a more dedicated, intentional manner; my MA show was a book release, after all. (Albeit it was an illustrated book as much about the visuals if not more so than the writing.) From then onwards, I wrote: Notebook journals, then online journals, then comics blogging, now entertainment and culture writing.

Two decades’ worth, give or take a few years. (Actually, thinking about it, it might be the 25th anniversary of that school newspaper writing this year. Good Lord.)

I was re-reading Wim Wenders’ The Logic of Images recently; it was one of the books that actually inspired me to write more, way back in the mid-90s. I was captivated and bewitched by the lack of conclusion to it, the idea that you could just have anthologies of notes and unfinished thoughts and interview fragments and things you’d written for other places that became something else, something new, when placed in this new context. It changed the way I thought about books, and about writing itself.

And, when I read it this time, I kept thinking, Can I do that now? I don’t have Faber & Faber beating down my door — nor any publisher, for that matter — but I do have the internet and a promise I made myself at the start of the year to try and stick things up on Gumroad and elsewhere as digital releases. And, anyway; this isn’t about money or even actually selling things; it’s about the idea of going back through these decades of the past and pulling things out, finding new meaning and new stories, and retelling the story of me to myself. Everyone else is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, just a bonus.

Will I do it? It’s unclear, not just for the reasons of embarrassing myself by sharing the passionate sincerity of my 20-something self; there’s also the practicalities of actually re-reading all that material to see if any of it is worth salvaging, and then curating a collection or collections. It’s a lot of work, with time I’m not sure I have to hand easily. But the idea lingers in my head, refusing to leave.

It Radiates In You

At the start of the year, I saw something in one of my regular news haunts — the Guardian, perhaps? — that was, essentially, “Hey, the hot new thing is psychogeography, I bet you’ve never heard of it!” and I rolled my eyes so hard they almost fell out; I’ve been going on derives for more than two decades, thanks to my history as a pretentious art student, thank you very much.

The whole thing got me thinking about psychogeography and personalized maps, however, which got me thinking about the fact that the world changes around us in ways that we don’t necessarily think about until confronted with. The last time I was back in my hometown, I was struck by how physically different it had become from my last visit. Admittedly, there had been years — 5 or 6, likely, if not more — since I’d been there before, and even then some of the changes were underway or had already taken place. But, literally, there were streets that no longer existed that I remembered clearly, and buildings that were the landmarks I knew to identify my location that were no longer there, or changed beyond recognition.

Most obviously, the house I grew up in is gone, to all intents and purposes. It’s been sold at least twice since I left, and split into a duplex, with new doors installed on an entirely different wall, creating a disorienting effect when I pass by — my brain reads the entryways as they are now as wrong, as if people are now walking directly into the bathroom and why would you do that…? It’s more than that, of course; the walk I would make from that house to the local train station doesn’t exist as it was, either; there are roads that are now dead-ends, shops I used as signposts to take a left that simply aren’t there anymore. The same with the walk I did every Saturday to go downtown, a necessary pilgrimage to feel alive and not alone; entire streets that I walked down are just memories now.

I was struck by this the way that only someone who hadn’t been there in years could be. I mentioned the many differences to my family who remained local, and in every instance, it was as if I was mentioning a long-forgotten event from decades earlier. “Oh, yeah, I forgot that happened…”

We create our own maps, our own cities and towns and spaces, in our heads as we move about each environment on a daily basis. And sometimes, those spaces change when we’re not looking, and all that is left are these ghosts overlaid on the world that’s coming.

2018 Revival: OMAC Essay

This only went up on the Shelfdust site a week or so back, despite my having written it in… October? November? I can’t even remember at this point. Internet deadlines can be weird, here’s an essay I wrote to accompany the Shelfdust Top 100 Comic Issues list. It’s kind of a mess — I was in a very strange frame of mind as I wrote it — but I like it anyway.

The very first page of 1974’s OMAC #1 tells the reader exactly what to expect; the opening narrative capture explains the set-up for the entire series as Jack Kirby starts the book in media res: “OMAC One Man Army Corps is the story of a young man in The World That’s Coming!!” it starts. “In that strange place, the common objects of today… may become the terrors that we never bargained for… like the one below!”

Kirby gets a lot of shit for his writing tics, all the weird emphasis and “random” “quote” “marks” where it doesn’t really seem to make sense from today’s point of view, not to mention the irrepressible momentum of it all; it’s a million miles away from the stylized, self-conscious thing that passed for naturalism in today’s mainstream comics, and for that reason alone it’s often criticized or targeted as a guilty pleasure. But it’s genuinely amazing stuff, as immediate as the best pop music and featuring turns of phrase or ideas that are wonderfully memorable and memetic decades before anyone knew what that word meant. OMAC is filled with so many examples of this kind of thing, from “The World That’s Coming!!” to Lila the Build-A-Friend, who pleads “Put me together… I will be your friend…” prompting OMAC to respond, “Where does humanity stop and technology begin? We no longer know, Lila…”

The techno-suspicion of the first issue is wonderful, and wonderfully prescient; Buddy Blank’s discovery that the one person in the world who was kind to him was just an artificial intelligence — although, again, this was decades before that term would enter popular usage — feels like a predication of the relationships formed through social media and the ways in which they can turn out to be not as real as some hoped for, or believed. But Buddy, the nebbish alter ego of the One Man Army Corps who essentially disappears from the series midway through this first issue, is what makes it feel like Kirby knew what The World That’s Coming!! was like more than most.

There’s a scene in the issue, where Buddy is wandering aimlessly through the halls of “Pseudo-People, Inc.,” the dehumanizing corporation he works for, having been bullied. What initially seems like a Marvel-esque origin story — is he the loser that no-one understands? — gets turned on its head by a subtlety and ambivalence that Stan Lee would’ve jumped away from in fear. “Maybe Fox is right,” Buddy thinks to himself. “I’m angry enough to flip out!” A page later, he says to himself, “I’m not angry at anybody… I just feel depressed, that’s all…”

OMAC #1 has all the hallmarks of a Kirby comic that people would expect from reading his Marvel work, and arguably even the majority of his Fourth World material — it’s visually bombastic, it’s fast-paced and dynamic and filled with astounding concepts that are at once ridiculous and utterly perfect. But at the heart of it is a character who feels honest and true and recognizable to so many people today: A character who is somehow more real than the milquetoast nerd stereotype of a million other comics by that point, who feels alienated and abandoned by a world around him that’s hypnotized by the toys and the technology at its fingertips, and who — most importantly, perhaps — doesn’t get a last-minute vengeance or score-evening moment of redemption.

Instead, Buddy is swallowed up by that same technology, against his will. He isn’t changed into OMAC by choice, or even an accident; he’s chosen by an authority he isn’t even aware or, and once “Omactivated,” is essentially a different person altogether: He’s more violent, more confident; a version of the cliched alpha male. Buddy is murdered by the state so that OMAC can live, if you like.

OMAC as a series is great; it’s got everything you could want from 1970s Jack Kirby, who is undoubtedly my favorite Jack Kirby. But OMAC #1, taken on its own, is something far greater than what followed; it’s a sneaky, but perfect, horror story about the world that we live in today, and the ways in which the everyman — “Buddy Blank” is a poetically perfect name for someone who could be all of us — is powerless to resist against its lure of techno-distraction and authoritarian control. 44 years after it was published, it just continues to feel more and more timely with each new reading.

2018 Revival: The Sounds Of The Streets

Because I am permanently behind the curve, I only really started using Spotify last year, and used it entirely sporadically this year — which would be why the albums I bought and listened to incessantly, like this year’s Gorillaz and The Good The Bad and The Queen aren’t reflected on the below list at all, nor is my obsessive David Holmes re-binging — but here are apparently the 10 songs I listened to most on Spotify in the past twelve months. 

Goodbye, 2018. You had some amazing high points and some horrific low points. But, all told, I’m glad you’re behind me as of tomorrow.

2018 Revival: THR Newsletter Logos

Something unusual — I do the header logos for the THR Heat Vision newsletter every week. I fell into it by accident, because I started by tweaking the logos someone else had done, and then somehow I was just doing the logos every week. It’s a surprisingly fun part of my week, even if I know my logos are far below the standards of people who, you know, do this for a living. Here are some of my favorites from the first few weeks.

2018 Revival: My Personal Top 10 Comics Issues List

This one wasn’t written for publication or performance; it was the notes I made to accompany my submission to Shelfdust’s Top 100 Comics Listwhen I submitted my Top 10. (To clarify: It was specifically top 10 comics single issues, not storylines/collections/graphic novels, and it was by any definition I wanted — I went for something between what they meant for me personally and how good I thought they were.) I didn’t know that it wasn’t for publication at time of writing, because I didn’t know whether we were supposed to write note to share or not, but that just made sure that I wrote more, which is always good. 

#10: The New Guardians #1 (1988, DC Comics)

— I loved Millennium, the crossover this came from, so much that I subscribed to this (for an exceptionally large amount of money; I was in the UK, after all) before it launched. The series was a disaster, with Steve Englehart leaving midway through the second issue, but even today, there’s something special about the launch issue: A vision of socially inclusive and diverse comics that I was looking for but hadn’t found yet.

#9: The Invisibles #12 (1995, DC/Vertigo)

— The Invisibles was a (the?) seminal series for me, and this is arguably the most important issue in it; the one that introduces the true hero of the whole thing, and also explains how bad guys become bad guys. It’s very much in the whole pulp tradition, but also something that asks and expects a little kindness from those reading.

#8: Uncanny X-Men #185 (1984, Marvel Comics)

— The comic where I decided that I was going to collect comics. What was it about this? Claremont arguably in his prime, Romita Jr. and Dan Green at the 1980s best, but also the sense of it being this expansive fictional universe that went far beyond the superhero comics I’d read as a kid. This felt “other,” it was amazingly exciting.

#7: Or Else #2 (2004, Drawn & Quarterly)

— Kevin Huizenga has the honesty of an Eddie Campbell, but the formal curiosity of a Chris Ware and the heart of a Jaime Hernandez. This was the first thing I read from him, back when it was a mini comic called Supermonster #14. The reprint (that was, I think, also redrawn and/or expanded?) just cemented how wonderful he, it, and comics in general, are.

#6: Deadline #5 (1989, Deadline)

— The first issue of Deadline I bought, and the place where I discovered comics that weren’t superheroes or 2000AD. My first taste of Philip Bond, Jamie Hewlett, Nick Abadzis and Shaky Kane. This was unspeakably important to me at the time; it really felt like the world was opening up and comics were a place to explore all these things in a language I’d understand.

#5: Mister Miracle #10 (2018, DC Comics)

— No comic has ever felt like a more perfect expression of a relationship than this one, to me.

#4: Flex Mentallo #4 (1996, DC/Vertigo)

— “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.”

#3: OMAC #1 (1974, DC Comics)

— One of the most perfect first issues ever made in comics, and also one of the most prescient pieces of 20th Century science fiction. Oddly, also released in the same month I was born, apparently.

#2: Dork #7 (1999, Slave Labor Graphics)

— Evan Dorkin writing about his nervous breakdown was (and, in many ways, still is) a shock considering this had previously been his humor anthology, but he does it with such honesty, anger and wit that it’s undoubtedly one of the best comics I’ve ever read.

#1: Grafitti Kitchen #1 (1993, Tundra)

— Simply one of the best one-shot issues ever, one of the best autobiographical comics ever — sure, he’s pretending to be Alec McGarry, but still — and one of the most honest pieces of writing about how complicated and dumb and hopeful we get when it comes to relationships.