Swollen But Unseen

I’ve been re-reading Brian Eno’s A Year With Swollen Appendices lately, I’ve become fascinated with the latter element of the book. For those who’re unfamiliar with it, it’s basically a published version of a year of Eno’s diaries, with the addition of a bunch of essays and expanded thoughts at the end; about a third of the finished book is made up of those appendices, which range from everything from lists of books and records Eno has been involved with to unfinished essays about why “interactive” isn’t the right word to use when describing certain kinds of media. It’s a fun, thought provoking, playful read, and one I’ve been enjoying revisiting.

All of this is prelude to me admitting this: it’s made me want to write big, thoughtful pieces of comics theory. It’s left me wanting not just to read, but to write longform thinking and theorizing about the comics medium and the comics format. It’s left me wanting to be playful with something that is my field of expertise in the same way that Eno is with his, even if I don’t necessarily know what that would actually look like in practice. It’s become a really exciting idea, at least in theory.

The thing is, I don’t know where I’d put that; in theory, it could be a Popverse idea, but I don’t feel like it’s complete enough for there, or necessarily even coherent enough — there’s something about Popverse as a platform (and a job!) that I think needs to be almost finished before putting in there, and this isn’t that, at all. Is it something for here? Maybe — this has always been a space I’d promised myself for experimentation and failure, but is it too comic-forward for here…? I don’t know.

There’s no small part of me that wishes that I had the book deal that never quite happened; if this could be anything, it could be a book. One day, perhaps. One day.

Checking It Twice

I’m keeping track of what comics I’m reading this year, or at least, I’m trying to — it’s something I’ve tried in the past, only to abandon almost immediately by accident or design, because I’ll realize I forgot something or other and give the whole thing up as inherently flawed. As I’m writing this, it’s January 14 so we’re almost halfway through the month (how, I don’t know), and my progress has been… reasonable…? I think…?

I have, I’m sure, forgotten more than one thing to add, by now; I read for fun but also for work, which means that sometimes I’ll quickly have to skip through an issue or two in the middle of the day and forget about it when thinking about the list later. That’s okay, though — this is an inherently imperfect exercise, and it’s enough to get a close approximation of my reading habits, rather than an exact snapshot. Or, you know, so I tell myself, anyway.

It’s funny to me that I’m finally (almost) succeeding in this project when the original impetus for it is no longer in place, I have to admit. This was, whenever it first occurred to me, something I was doing to match Jeff’s efforts in tracking his reading for the podcast; we’d be talking about what we’d been going through and I’d just guess based on my admittedly faulty recollection, before he’d pull out a spreadsheet with facts. I was always a bit daunted, impressed, and jealous every time. I could do that if I tried, I’d think to myself, and then a new year would roll around and I’d prove myself wrong.

(One thing that’s actually made a difference this year: not trying to do it in a spreadsheet. Honestly, just keeping a lengthy, messy list is working so much better. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure.)

This far in, I can happily report that there’s no rhyme or reason to my reading, no through line to discover. I remain as random as ever, in my old age.

Stinkin’ Thinkin’

There was a point this year when I felt good about the amount of prose I was reading; I might even have written about it here. Through luck or happenstance, I was averaging a book a week, although that was including nonfiction I was reading for work — so many academic retrospectives on popular culture and the comic book industry! — and my secret pleasure of short story collections, which I can speed through effortlessly. (Perhaps my most recent favorite of the latter is Donald Westlake’s Thieves’ Dozen, which collects his short Dortmunder stories. Consider it highly recommended, if you like snappy, sneaky fiction.)

I’m not entirely sure when my reading streak finished, or how. Was it that period where I’d basically make it to the end of the day by dragging my tired ass across the finish line, slumping into bed with barely enough strength to turn out the light and lay my head down? Probably; I know that, during those few weeks, there was a pile of unread books on my bedside table that just wondered what the deal was and when I’d make time for them.

The result is, though, that I’m back to feeling self-consciously uncultured again, as if all I can manage to keep up with are comic books and television shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, mind; but I want the time and brain power to juggle some prose in there too, dammit.

There’s a solution to be found here, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it actually is — my workload isn’t lightening up anytime soon, and I barely get enough time to spend with Chloe as-is, so it’s not as if I can magically make time to sit down with a good book. And even then, I need to find the right good books, something that’ll keep my interest but let me dip out when necessary, something to make me obsessed but not too obsessed. Dear reader, I want to be a dear reader, if only I could find the time, thought power, and subject matter to make it happen.

Never Get Too Cool

Reading Bobby Gillespie’s memoir Tenement Kid has been a joy this week; it’s not that it’s a particularly well-written book (it’s not), or that Gillespie’s childhood was either unique enough to be fascinating or so similar to mine as to create a bond, but instead that he’s clearly being honest and thrilled by his own history, sharing memories and old loves and grudges alike with equal affection. It’s a surprisingly charming, unaffected, read that feels like the perfect balm after a busy day of thinking too hard.

It’s also something that, even though my experience barely mirrors his — I was born more than a decade later and in less violent surroundings, for one thing — triggers my own nostalgia in unexpected ways. He writes about the record shops he haunted as a teenager getting into the punk scene, and I’m launched into a pleasant reverie about places like Rhythmic Records and FOPP that I’d make weekly trips to when I hit the same age, excitedly flipping through the racks looking for something surprising and essential. He shares his passions for bands that unlocked parts of his brain and made things more possible, and I can remember my own version of the same experience with other bands, including his own Primal Scream. (The circle of life, I guess.)

At one point, he mentions offhandedly sitting in Glasgow and having lunch on his own, away from the other students in his college course, because he wanted to check out record stores at the same time. Reading that, I remembered the year I spent in community college after high school. Getting there meant going through Glasgow, and every Friday, I’d make it a point to get to a comic shop and pick up that week’s new releases; it felt like an unlikely, entirely welcome, side effect of college — a new freedom, in some way, at a time when little else felt free.

I hadn’t thought about that in years, before this book. Remembering it again was like unlocking a hidden building block of where I ended up, and who I became.

Without Pictures

Entirely by accident, I seem to have fallen back into reading prose after a significant period where that wasn’t really true. I am, to be blunt, fucking thrilled about this.

Just as I can’t really explain why I stopped in the first place — two of the causes were that my brain wasn’t in the right place to have that kind of sustained concentration across however many nights it would take to complete a book, and the earliest days of COVID lockdown meant that the library was off-limits, but that feels like just the tip of an undefined iceberg, if I’m being honest — I couldn’t really tell you what made me go back or how it happened. And yet, here I am.

Without trying, I appear to have made it through a book a week for the first month of the year. They’re not all necessary good books — I read a 300+ page collection of essays on transmedia storytelling as research for something I’m doing for work, for example — and even the ones I enjoyed weren’t necessarily quality storytelling. I’m looking at you, Star Trek: The Next Generation Warped, which is essentially just a joke book making fun of ST:TNG for a few hundred pages. It is, however, a lot of fun for those of us who grew up on that show, and are perfectly aware of its many flaws. (It’s also written by the showrunner for the wonderful Star Trek: Lower Decks, if that acts as a recommendation to anyone.)

I defend myself by pointing out that I also completed the mammoth Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, which is an almost 1,000-page long oral history of the cable channel filled with all kinds of interesting and occasionally amusing information about television across the last 50 years or so. Surely that counts as more than one book, given just how fucking long it is? Viewed through that lens, maybe I’ve been reading even more than I thought, allowing me to feel especially smug about myself for just this once. Look at me, reading prose and enjoying it like a big boy!

(The other books I didn’t mention but read were two critical books about comics, and specifically, Alan Moore-related topics: Poisoned Chalice, about the history of Marvelman and Miracleman, and The British Invasion, a fun analysis and comparison of the work and careers of Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman. What can I say? I’m a nerd.)

Only A Certain Few Remember The Nexus

I’m reading Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How One Person Became A User at night these days. I’m enjoying it, for the most part, although it’s making me curiously nostalgic for my own days where I first stumbled onto the internet and explored what was, at the time, called “cyberspace” with something approaching sincerity.

Like many, if not most, of my peers in terms of age, the internet was something I first explored at school — I can remember my art school hooking us all up with accounts that required ridiculously complicated logins that included our names and some arcane numerical sequences that I’d written down in multiple locations just in case, and I can remember getting confused by just how to move around the nascent internet and find anything I actually wanted to read, but nonetheless being extraordinarily excited by the whole thing, just because.

I can also remember finding communities for the first time on this weird internet place, and having what might have been my first major cases of imposter syndrome as a result: Look at all these people talking about comics that I love, they’re all so much smarter than me and have all this insider information, oh my God, I can’t interact with them, can I? (This is still applicable today, especially when I read particularly well-written comics crit.)

Even with this imposter syndrome, even with the fact that, back then, just getting online with anything resembling a regularity to log into to these communities was a task in and of itself, the very existence of those sites, those societies of people who were like me, just a little bit better at it than I was, proved to be endlessly, immeasurably important to the me I was at the time. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them, or even more, who I’d be.

I suspect I’d be far less happy or fulfilled. I suspect I’d be a lesser person. So, yeah; reading Lurking has been an unexpected experience, at once educational on an objective level, but also like reliving something impossible to describe in an emotional, subjective way. I’d recommend it, but far more than usual, your mileage may vary.

Please Don’t Put Your Life In The Hands of a Rock and Roll Band

I’ve been re-reading Bill Drummond’s 45 lately, off-and-on, and feeling the strange effects that come from revisiting something that has such a strong sense of place and time attached to it in my head.

As I’ve written before, 45 was something I discovered pretty much by accident when I was nearing the end of my art school career and already thinking of myself as a writer instead of any kind of graphic designer or visual artist; I liked the packaging of the original release, when I found it in a bookstore by chance — a 7 inch square book, just like the dimensions of a vinyl single, which would need to be played at 45RPM. I bought it after skimming the first few pages, having no idea just how much the mixture of pop history and personal digression would both appeal to me and form a basis for the kind of thing I wanted to write myself in later life.

I met Drummond not long afterwards; he came to do a talk at the arts organization I was involved in, and I remember just being afraid of speaking to him, because I was that in awe of him. The idea that he could make a living writing like that seemed impossible, and something I desperately wanted for myself.

More than anything, it’s been that meeting that I’ve been thinking about through this re-read. I remember clearly thinking that Drummond had everything figured out, and that this only made sense because, as I thought then, Drummond was in his mid-40s! Of course everything had fallen into place by that point! Of course he had all the answers!

From childhood through probably my late 20s, honestly, the idea of being 40 or above was some kind of marker of adulthood that defined having sorted your shit out. I remember my parents turning 40 when I was a kid, and how it seemed like “parent” age. Drummond was writing about hitting his mid-40s exactly, and so I just put all this pressure on him in my head to be an avatar of artistic success, projecting all manner of… everything onto the poor man.

Looking back at it now, I realize that he probably wasn’t making a living from his writing, but from making personal appearances and whatever royalties he was getting from his musical career; I read the stories again and notice his failures and failings in a way I didn’t the first time around, and see that he was writing about his flaws and his own anxieties and fears about throwing his life away on pop… something I only was vaguely aware of before, but now feel all too clearly.

45 is a book that’s growing with me, although perhaps that’s because I wasn’t smart enough to pick up what it was putting down before. Either way, I’m glad to be older and wiser on this go-through.

Whatever You Do

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the lost art of changing your mind, especially in critical scenarios. Part of this comes from revisiting movies that I’ve previously liked and found wanting years later — not least of which being the theatrical version of Justice League, which I rewatched for work reasons and realized was so uneven and disjointed that I couldn’t believe that I’d ever thought it was, you know, fine — as well as going back to things I’d believed were lacking, only to find new value and strength after the fact.

Maybe it’s because I work online, and exist in those spaces — not just my work spaces, but also social media as a whole — that I feel as if it’s difficult to come out and say, “that earlier take I had, I disagree with now.” There’s a pressure to entirely dedicate yourself to your opinion and valiantly defend it, no matter what, I feel; the idea that liking something or disliking it to the degree that every single opinion becomes a potential hill to die on, no matter how trivial. Perhaps it’s old age talking, but I feel like it’s not overly ridiculous to be okay with deciding that the superhero movie you thought was cool five years ago is actually a bit shit, on reflection.

This is, of course, dangerous thing to admit out loud; by being an online culture writer, it’s basically an announcement that I have critical opinions that others should pay attention to, and going back to those opinions after the fact to say that, on reflection, maybe I was wrong, might undercut the very purpose of the whole thing. Aren’t we supposed to be, if not infallible, then at least unchanging?

But, again, that feels like a fault. There is value in changing your mind, and re-evaluating your opinions on art at a later date, even if it’s just discovering new favorites to love from that point on. Or accepting that Justice League could never be as strong as I wanted it to be.

Not a Sports Page, Not a Magazine

A stray comment from a friend recently has been stuck inside my brain for the last few days, bouncing around as if it contains more weight and truth than initially appears. We were talking about his Thanksgiving break, and just how he filled five days off in a house by himself, and he said something along the lines of, “And I can’t even manage to read books anymore, my concentration is so shot.”

I used to read a lot. A lot. I’d get through books at breakneck speed, with a pile of comics to accompany them always at the ready, either literally or virtually. It was something that, if I didn’t exactly pride myself on, then I was at least proud of — not the number of books read, per se, but that I was constantly taking in new ideas, new information, and feeding my brain. Reading, as the slogan goes, is fundamental, and I was excited and happy to be someone who read a lot.

This year has wrecked that. Specifically, it’s wrecked my reading concentration — or, perhaps, my ability to concentrate for the extended periods necessary to read — to the point where I’ve only managed to complete a handful of books, and even those have felt more like a struggle than I’d like to admit.

It’s not that I don’t want to read. It’s that my brain likes to distract me when I do — reminding me of other things I should or could be doing, other things I should thinking or asking or or or — and so, reading becomes difficult. This is specifically related to the concept of reading for pleasure, I should add; I have likely read more for work, or read more news and analysis in the name of “feeling informed,” than usual across the last 12 months. My word count, such as it is, is likely the same, but it’s purpose is entirely different.

I’m sad about that; I miss reading for fun. I miss feeding those new ideas into my head, even if they were trashy, shitty ideas. (Especially then.) It’s oddly comforting to know that I’m seemingly not alone in having this problem, but still: I hope that I can learn to read more books again next year.

Cancellation Notice

So, I cancelled my New York Times subscription.

I’d subscribed digitally just after Trump was inaugurated, in part because I wanted to support journalism in an era that would need journalism, and also because I knew realistically that I’d want access to more than the 10 articles a month limit you get without a subscription. I wasn’t the biggest Times booster, even though I enjoyed a bunch of writers there (and particularly enjoyed their podcasts, too; The Daily was a must every day for a long time), but it felt important to finally sign up to the Times as an accompaniment to my already present Washington Post subscription.

(I’d been a Post subscriber for longer for two reasons; I prefer that paper’s political coverage by far, and the digital subscription was far, far cheaper. The Times subscription felt overpriced for what I was getting out of it, to be honest.)

I stayed a Times subscriber through multiple concerns about coverage and weakness in both reporting and editorial point of view; sure, my readership of it dropped to almost non-existent outside of the big stories, but I was still supporting journalism, dammit! As a journalist myself, it was a point of principle, even when the journalism being practiced didn’t seem to uphold the principles I would’ve wanted it to. And then the Tom Cotton op-ed ran.

There’s so much about that op-ed and the circumstances of its creation and publication that are, to say the least, troubling, that came out in the days after its publication — that the section editor didn’t read it prior to publishing, that it was pitched to Cotton by the paper, that it didn’t go through fact checks and was subsequently found to fall under the paper’s own journalistic standards — but for me, even just seeing the headline “Send In The Troops” was enough. It was time to cancel.

(The piece was trash, of course, but it was lying, dangerous trash calling for martial law in a public venue that should not, under any circumstances, publish such inflammatory bullshit at a time like now. Days later, I’m still incandescent with anger over how irresponsible the piece was, how drastically the Times failed in not only allowing it to run, but commissioning it in the first place.)

There’s a whole process you have to go through in order to cancel your Times subscription, it turns out; it’s not like you can just click a button. In total, it took me an hour or so, and an online chat with someone called Eric to shut it down. What stands out about the whole thing, though, was Eric’s response when I told him why I was cancelling. He dropped the attempts to keep me by lowering the price or offering additional add-one, and just thanked me for being “an important voice for change.”

When even your sales staff think some things are worth cancelling over, that’s probably a sign you’ve fucked up, surely.