You Never Knew The Way To Say No

The freelancer’s dilemma is the one where you say find yourself wondering whether to yes to work that you know you don’t have time for, because you either are afraid of not having enough work in the future or, simply, you need the money too much to say no.  (There’s a variation in which someone offers you something so exciting that you can’t resist, but trust me; that’s far more rare.)

In short, this has been my past couple of weeks. Or, rather, the consequences of my having said yes have been.

I have my excuses, of course; in my head, I argue that I actually said yes to the big job that dominated my brain and schedule because it was an outlet I haven’t been doing a lot of work with recently and wanted a better relationship with, but I also can’t deny that the outrageous money being offered helped a lot, too. The end of February brought about a significant financial crunch that I wasn’t expecting, and that left deep scars; if I said yes to this project that sounded unexciting but not entirely uninteresting, I thought to myself, then perhaps I wouldn’t be in that shape again this month.

(I wouldn’t be in that shape again anyway; February was a collection of other people’s mistakes, moneywise, all of which impacted me. The odds of that happening again were, to be polite, absolutely fucking astronomical. But, as I said, it left scars.)

The thing is, even as I said yes, I knew it was not smart. My schedule was already full, and I had already been telling people that I was feeling overworked. Adding more was in every respect except for money and my relationship with this outlet, a bad idea. And yet.

The fates decided to teach me a lesson; research and interviews for the piece took longer than expected, got rescheduled at the last minute. (Literally the last two minutes: I got an email at 1:58 asking to postpone a 2pm call at one point.) Other pieces of work I already owed popped up that needed attention unexpectedly. The whole process was just harder than it should have been, to an almost comic degree.

i finished it, anyway, and handed it in yesterday afternoon as I write this. My brain was doing the thing where it feels like it’s running too fast and off the rails, and I felt both exhausted and slightly crazy. And, as soon as I sent it off, I wondered, “Can I do one of these every month? The money was crazily good…”

We Have To Go Back

I’m still thinking about the whole elder blogging thing, and the What Am I Doing With This Site? of it all; it’s an ongoing process, a problem that — unlike so many other problems — is neither serious nor pressing, and therefore fun to play with and return to when possible. Reading the Wim Wenders book fueled my desire to explore this site as a place for, as Warren Ellis recently put it, “not fully baked notions.”

There’s a quote that I utterly misremembered from roughly the same era as when I discovered the Wenders book that applies here, from designer April Greiman: “To feel lost is so great.” It’s the idea that the act of discovery and re-evaluation and the improvisation that comes from being forced to abandon routine, even good routine. When I first read that line, I loved it and was afraid of it — being lost wasn’t great, it’s scary, but at least someone finds this value in this horrible situation.

As I’ve gotten older (and lived more, failed more and come to accept and perhaps even appreciate the limits of my own experience), my read on that line has changed, and I’ve come to embrace the potential and possibility that comes with being out of my depth. Yes, there’s a lot I have to learn, still, but there’s something exciting and exhilarating in that process just as there’s something exhausting and terrifying. There’s something to be said for not having answers and showing your working and learning in public. (In some areas, at least.)

Perhaps the point of having a space like this is to be lost, and to share the thoughts we have as we try to find ourselves.

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.

Zeroes And Ones Will See You Through

I’ve had this website for years now; it was a weird side site at first, somewhere personal for me to write things for fun — remember fun? —  while I also had a theoretical “work site,” since taken over by a German squatter for some mysterious reason. And it was fun; a place to just ramble and dissemble without the audience I’d built up on Twitter or the pressure (or focus) of one of my professional outlets.

Then, years later than everyone else, I discovered Tumblr, and more or less migrated there for both the ease of the platform and also the social side of things — it felt like an inviting cross between this site and Twitter, and who wouldn’t want that? I more or less abandoned this site, unintentionally; I rarely had enough time to write something up for here, and Tumblr seemed more appreciative of shorter posts.

Cut to now, post-Tumblr becoming a wasteland and also somewhere obsessed with wrongfully declaring everything porn. My Tumblr love feels, if anything, more misguided than my Twitter addiction, and I find myself upset at the missed opportunity to make more of this site, which I own and control. There’s something to that last part, especially; I feel like the “Don’t use someone else’s platform, that way you don’t control your content” conversation repeats itself every couple of years or so, but I’m finally listening.

(The number of people who left Tumblr and talked about downloading all their content and posting it elsewhere was fascinating to me; I imported all my Tumblr posts to this site and am slowly working through that, curating the stuff worth keeping and deleting the rest.)

So, I’m here again, still rambling and dissembling, but on my own terms. Is this what anyone else wants to read? I doubt it, but it doesn’t really matter — it’s something that feels good to be doing once again, and something that makes me feel in control of my digital life even in a small way. That’s enough.

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.

And The Morning Seems So Grey

Something that no-one seemed to consider about this whole “living through history” thing is how utterly exhausting it is. We have, for the past two years or so, been in a political moment as dramatic and important as any since Watergate (at least; I’m sure there are those who feel what’s happening right now is more, somehow), and as thrilling as that may be — admittedly, alternate terms may include “horrifying” and “anxiety-inducing”; your choice as you may feel applicable — it also feels as if it’s an endurance challenge intended to destroy us.

The lives and livelihoods of friends and strangers have been constantly under threat during all this time, the moral thread of this country feels at times almost permanently lost, and reality often seems to be folding in upon itself as things which feel like paranoid conspiracy cliches turn out again and again to be true. (As I write, there are yet more stories suggesting with worrying legitimacy that the President’s loyalties lie with Russia, not the US, something that feels as if it really shouldn’t be true, as if that were too unoriginal and hacky.)

The upshot of this is a fraying of the nerves, and a growing weariness towards… Well, everything. There was a lot of don’t normalize this at the start of the Trump presidency from well-intentioned scolds, but how could we not? The alternative was to constantly live in this heightened sense of alarm and disoriented shock, which is an easy way to lose perspective on everything. And yet… isn’t that what kind of happened, anyway? I know that my good humor feels strained past breaking point, at times, now, and 2018 as a whole was a year that broke me — and legitimately broke parts of my life-as-was for good.

I was talking about this to a friend, recently. (Hi, Jeff.) He said that things feel different now, somehow, better in some inexplicable way that felt dangerous to try and identify for fear of simply tempting fate. I feel that, too, and the mixture of excitement, optimism and, to be honest, this beaten-down fear that, no, things don’t get better anymore, they just get weirder and worse is difficult to describe, beyond simply saying that it’s tiring. There was a time, once, when I didn’t feel so tired all the time, and I want to get back there soon.

Or perhaps that’s just age, for all I know.

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.

2018 Revival: Who Is The Best Supervillain?

Another thing written for an unexpected outlet this year, and an unexpected revival — this was for io9, which asked me for a brief submission about the best supervillain. It was my first piece there for… eight years or so…? I also went to a get-together of io9 writers past and present at NYCC this year, so perhaps I’m over my weird grudge finally.

There’s a tradition in superhero comics for truly powerful beings to be beyond human morality — so, you get characters like Marvel’s Galactus, who eats planets but is somehow not evil because, hey, who are we to judge? Similarly, Marvel also has characters like the Beyonder or Michael Korvac, both of whom are omnipotent and definitely antagonists, but could they really be considered supervillains…? There’s an argument to be made against, seeing as neither are really trying to do much more than survive and learn, even if that process threatens the free will of everyone around them. Surely intent figures into deciding whether or not someone is a villain, super or otherwise…?

I really want to say it’s Darkseid, because Darkseid is obviously the best supervillain. He wants to eradicate free will, and he’s got no problem doing whatever it takes to achieve that aim, even though he’s bound by his own weird sense of honor. He’s complex, contradictory and fascinating, and he’s also been able to kill Batman and beat up Superman and screw with the entire Justice League, so he’s clearly pretty powerful. But, really, he’s not the most powerful supervillain. We’ve seen far stronger. (Nekron, for example; he could bring all the dead guys back to life as evil zombies!)

Instead, I’ll nominate the Anti-Monitor, the awkwardly-named villain of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. While his motivation and, really, personality, were somewhat unclear in that series, it couldn’t be denied that he was powerful: He was literally destroying entire universes to further his agenda of destroying all positive matter — he’s the Anti-Monitor, after all —succeeding, he killed countless versions of DC’s biggest name characters and, thanks to the cosmic laws of DC mythology, his being from the Anti-Matter universe automatically means that he’s evil. Most powerful supervillain? Almost certainly. That costume alone should earn him a place on the list, let’s be real.