Final Looks

It strikes me that, back in Scotland at least, this is the time of year when the art schools hold their traditional final exhibit degree shows; even now, more than a quarter century after my own BA show, the thought makes me surprisingly anxious.

The degree show is exactly what it sounds like: the final show of the work you’ve been doing for the entire year, upon which you’re judged by the teachers, tutors, and whoever else is roped in on what grade your final degree is going to be. (For my school, it wasn’t only the exhibit that you were graded on; you could file supporting work as well. I did, and in the three hour window between getting my grade and the exhibit opening to the public, was told by tutors to put some of it in the actual exhibit, and remove some of the work originally in the exhibit because it wasn’t good enough. It was a lesson in self-editing, as well as a lesson in ego death.)

Even now, I can remember vividly how stressful preparing for the degree show was: the feeling that this one event would define the result of your last four years of life and work is a curiously masochistic experience, especially given the increasingly hands-off attitude displayed by art school staff in the final year leading up to it. More and more, you find yourself on your own as the final date moves closer, thinking to yourself, don’t fuck it up don’t fuck it up.

A year and change after my BA degree show, I was at it again with my MA degree show, the result of what had been at that point a sustained 12 months of work and self-directed exploration. The pressure on me for that show was, if anything, even greater for a number of reasons, but I remember feeling far less stressed about it, and far more convinced that I was doing the right thing, no matter what grade I got.

Somewhere out there as I type, there are likely kids like I was back then, feeling as if the weight of the world — and more importantly, their entire future — is on their shoulders as they prep their final exhibit. I hope they have more confidence than I did, and the perspective and self-belief that I didn’t get until my MA show.

No, I’m Wrong

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has the idea of a dream library that’s filled with all the books people have never written, but thought about writing — the unwritten stories by celebrated authors and those who never got past the blank first page alike. It’s a wonderful, romantic idea: yes, all those small disappointments we harbor inside (because all of us, each and every single one of us, has at least one book they secretly wish they’d been able to write; I have many) are relieved just a little because there’s somewhere that those dreams are fulfilled, no pun intended.

What I want to see instead, though, is a sister library: one filled by the versions of books that we’ve read but misremember. Especially when, as I’ve been discovering on multiple occasions lately, the versions of the book that we remember end up being significantly more interesting than the actual books themselves.

As frustrating as this experience has been — these experiences? Does it count as a separate experience if the disappointment is the same, just on a different topic? — there’s something to be said for the realization that my initial suspicion, fueled by the curmudgeonly attitude of an old man, that books were simply better back in the day, or at least filled with more interesting and challenging material, especially when it came to culture writing turns out to be just plain wrong.

Maybe I was simply more impressionable and more easily impressed, or it could be that my memory has rushed to paper over earlier disappointments by making me believe I was reading better material in the first place. All I know is that certain books I remembered as being eyeopening and worth of a revisit have demonstrated that just the opposite was true. The age of the cynical curmudgeon is always now, it seems.

You Can’t Go

If you’re tuning in hoping to read about my trip to the UK, bad news; I’m writing entries ahead of time again, so you’ll have to wait… an indeterminate time, I guess…? (Just because I’m writing them ahead of time doesn’t mean they’re going to run in the order they were written; I’m not that linear, which is a fancy way of saying, “I’m bad at organization.”) That doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about the trip, which is still a week away as I write, though. Specifically, I’m thinking about the prospect of going back to my childhood home for the first time in… what, 15 years or so?

To be clear, I’m not sure how much of my childhood home still exists, per se. My parents sold it when they were both alive, a handful of years after I’d moved to the US and my sisters had both moved out, and the last time I’ve even seen it — from a car as we drove past it, quickly — it looked as if the three-storey house had been split into two separate apartments with an external stairwell added to the side. It was a weird thing to see in passing, as if someone had drawn over a memory quickly and carelessly.

Since then, I’ve longed to go back and see what’s actually happened to the house. I’ve done the Google Earth thing, of course, but that’s not the same as actually being there. There’s something about the light of Scotland, a quality that feels different than the light in the US; I want to stand in front of the house in that light and… be there, whatever that actually means. I want to get as close as I can to the experience of going home that I felt every time I did it when I was in school.

If that’s even possible.

There’s a Great Big Crack in the

Watching Blur: No Distance Left To Run the other week, I had this unexpected moment at the very start of the movie that threw me off far more than I would have even imagined: a split-second shot of the Union Jack, flying in slow motion.

It’s something that only makes sense for the movie; Blur was, after all, one of the two leading lights of Britpop back in the day, so of course you have the British flag right there at the start, to set the scene. And yet: I had this really surprising reaction to it, almost viscerally.

I’m far from patriotic at the best of times, and when I even think of the idea of “patriotism,” British isn’t even something that I consider immediately; I think of being Scottish, and American, before I think of the idea of being British. (I suspect the “Scottish/British” thing is a whole subject in and of itself; I suspect there’s an entire contingent of Scots who don’t necessarily think of themselves as British, for whatever reason. Oh, the class and social systems and all their complications…)

The Union Jack was omnipresent in my twenties, because of Britpop. It was in posters, on single covers, on television, on clothes, on Noel Gallagher’s fucking guitar; it was the graphic that defined the age, somehow, at a time when the British Empire was the very opposite of a fond memory.

Is that why I had this instant revulsion to the flag when I saw it on the screen when I saw it? Was it some delayed rejection of the image of the age from my youth? Or some rejection of the very idea of patriotism for a county I don’t even necessarily believe in? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I still don’t have an answer. All I know is that, somehow, I’ve come to instinctively reject the idea of “Britishness” and look for something else, something more real. Modern life, perhaps, is still rubbish.

Old Haunts

There was one night during my recent Seattle visit where I found myself wandering around, trying to find a pizza place where we’d eaten last year, during the previous Emerald City Comic Con; they’d done a really good potato pizza, of all things, and I wanted to have it again, given the way the rest of the day had gone to that point. (I found it, and it was good; it’s a place called Serious Pie, if you’re in the area and curious.)

The pizza isn’t what’s important, though; instead, what is was the realization as I was walking back to the hotel that I was somewhere I had been at some point in the past, but that I couldn’t quite remember when. I knew it was some time ago — I had been there with my ex-wife, I could remember, but beyond that, every single detail was completely hazy: Why were we there? When had we been there? What were we even doing in Seattle?

All of it was nowhere to be found; I just knew for a fact that, at some point, we had been there — I could remember just a flash of a moment, a mental image, of being inside the building I was walking past at that very moment. For a second, I was haunted by the ghost of myself from years earlier.

That idea stuck with me for awhile; that I was at the point in my life where I could lose the details of something like that. Earlier that day, I’d been talking to someone I work with who’s a good two decades younger than me, and we’d been discussing the idea of forgotten histories, that you’d done so much that you’d lost the details of your own life to a degree. I said something along the lines of, you’re too young for that, wait until you’re my age, not really thinking beyond the self-depreciation element of, “Oh, I’m old.” And yet, here I was, experiencing the very thing we’d been talking about.

Tuck In

Re-reading Eddie Campbell’s How To Be An Artist and After The Snooter recently — well, relatively recently — got me thinking about how surprisingly clear my memories are of formative comic buying experiences from my youth. For all that my memory is unreliable overall, which is to say, it’s a mess and in some cases almost entirely non-existent, there are certain experiences that I’ve internally mythologized to such a degree that it’s as if they happened last year, as opposed to three decades or more ago.

(I know, rationally, that this doesn’t mean that my memories are any more reliable, or even consistent; it’s almost guaranteed that what I think I’m remembering is actually more than slightly fictionalized or mis-remembered and just fueled by a sincere, misguided sense of belief and “realism.” Nonetheless, it feels real, and that’s what counts, deep down.)

When I was a kid, there was a store that my dad and I would go to every Sunday morning to buy newspapers and bread rolls; it was a weekly tradition, to go together to buy those things for that day’s lunch. The entire family would gather and eat sandwiches and read newspapers together, each of us grabbing one of a stack of papers — for some reason, on Sunday, we got five or six different papers — while the television played behind us, no-one really paying attention. The store was called “The Tuck Shop,” and I loved it not for the bread rolls or the newspapers, but because every month, they’d get a literal stack of DC comics for me to choose from, all available for relatively cheap. Before too long, I’d convince my dad to let me get one each week alongside the papers and the rolls.

When I say “a stack,” I mean that, each month, the store would get an entire month’s worth of DC releases, or thereabouts, all at once. They’d be dead stock from somewhere else, three months behind release in comic book stores, but I didn’t care. For 30 pence, I could pick up issues of Superman or Batman or Justice League of America or whatever; at times, I’d save up my own money and go in and just buy four or five at a time. I was in heaven.

I said it was “an entire month’s worth” of releases; that’s not entirely true, because the selection was unreliable and almost certainly missing at least two or three titles randomly every single time. There would always be the “big” books, but more obscure favorites would come and go without rhyme or reason, resulting in a frustratingly incomplete collection for the me I was at the time. I didn’t really care, though, because the lure of the Tuck Shop remained impossible to resist.

Sometimes I think about that shop, and how central it was not just to my weeks at the time, but to who I ended up becoming. Without the Tuck Shop, I’m not sure my comic fandom would have turned out the way it did. Without those weekly visits, without the excitement of having a literal pile of comics to pick through and find new favorites, would I be the person I am with the job I have today?

Cogno, Redux

Not unrelated to the recent thoughts I’ve had about art school friends and the work we were all producing back then, I’ve been toying with the idea of finally unpacking — literally — the scraps of work I produced during those ancient, halcyon days and putting it some of it up here.

I mean, I’ve been toying with it in a more relaxed, laid back manner for years at this point — I might even have teased doing it once or twice, for that matter — but there’s always been the problem of, to be blunt, my laziness when it comes to actually unpacking the various boxes it still exists in (well, what little of it still exists) and then scanning it all in or photographing it, or whatever would be necessary to making it all happen. It always sounds like a good idea in theory, and then the practical elements come in to spoil the party.

Yet, here I am again, thinking that this might be the year and this might be the time. I blame a couple of influences in this regard: re-reading Eddie Campbell’s Alec: How to Be an Artist, which excels in making self-mythologizing appealing — not to mention, attempting to create a quasi-accurate accounting for your own past in the process — but also re-reading an issue of Kevin Huizenga’s Or Else in which ended the series by advertising a number of future issues that would never happen.

That last one made me imagine writing new installments of the work I wrote and drew for the university newspaper when I was a student, as if I’d continued to do it across the past 27 years or however long it’s actually been since I stopped. (I didn’t want to do it for the final year of my undergraduate program, so… since mid-1996, I guess…?) But in order to do that, I feel like I’d have to share some of the original pieces, so…?

Again, maybe this won’t happen, yet again. Maybe I’ll search all of this stuff out, take a look and then feel so embarrassed it stays locked in my budget version of the Disney Vault. Or, just maybe… maybe this is the year to put all that back out into the world after all. We’ll see.

One Man’s Treasure, And Other Stories

One of the things about re-buying things I owned years ago is the realization that so many of them have become genuinely expensive, rare, and treasured items in the intervening decades. Across the past few months, there have been times when I’ve gotten the idea to try and track down one particular weird thing — an issue of a comic series, say, or one specific edition of one specific book — only to find it online and think to myself, sure, I want to have it again, but there’s no way I’m going to spend that much money on that piece of pop culture trash.

It’s the flip side of whatever nostalgia wave I’m surfing, I guess; the slow acceptance that these various totems that I’ve been collecting for God knows what reason (besides, I mean, just wanting to re-read or re-hear certain things; that’s certainly part of it, if far from all of it) have value to other people as well, and seemingly more value than I’m willing to agree to. I made the reference to how much a Green Lantern comic cost the other day, but it wasn’t really a joke as much as my sincere befuddlement at the idea that people are apparently paying that much money for that particular comic.

In many cases, these are things I intentionally or unintentionally devalued in the past; I think of my teenage bedroom, a mess of comics and books and cassettes and CDs on the floor, me treating none of it with the reverence of today’s collectors. Of course, at that time it wasn’t decades old, and still easily available; I was disposable trash culture. That might be the reason for my current confusion: this stuff remains disposable trash culture for me still, purely because I lived through it. I was there, man, or whatever.

It’s 2023; it’s, what, 33 years since They Might Be Giants released Flood…? If you go back 33 years from that, you hit 1957. Imagine how arcane, how prehistoric that era felt to you back in the day. Imagine being upset that people were selling 1957’s pop culture for collector prices.

Only A Fool Would Take The Chance To Stay The Same

I was thinking the other day about the fact that so many of the people I went to art school with 25 years ago are still producing work that is, if not the same as, then at least on a par with, what they were doing in their final degree show. I see friends post their work on social media and I recognize everything about it — not in a bad way, per se, but it’s very much of what they were doing way back when.

At first, when thinking about this, I had a moment of… jealousy, perhaps? A sense of, “Oh, they found their voice early on, and that’s never been true for me.” I think back to the work I was doing in art school, and all I can really remember is how derivative so much of it was; I can think of the bits I was lifting from Dave McKean, the bits I was lifting from Kent Williams, the bits I was lifting from whoever. (Really, I was pulling left, right, and center from the various comics I was reading at the time; I was shameless, but because my teachers weren’t familiar with the source material, they never called me on it, as much as they should have.)

I was swiping so much because I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to say; I think that’s why I felt this feeling of envy when looking at friends’ work decades later and seeing the through line from then till now. I have this moment of, I wish I’d had that certainty of who I was way back when, as if that would have changed everything for me in some cosmic, inexplicable manner.

Of course, as I said, that was my reaction when all of this first occurred to me, and I thought to myself, oh, I should write about this on the site. Then, today, I opened up this window and thought about it again, only to switch my opinions on it almost entirely. Imagine not really finding a new aesthetic, a new thing in all that time? I might not have known who I was when I was 23, but that’s probably been all for the good in the years since; if I had, would I have ended up where I am, with the career and friends and relationship I have?

I Thought They’d Never End

Over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the mainstream North American comic book industry peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That sounds like both hyperbole and curmudgeonly old man thinking, when put so bluntly, but the more I think about it and try to poke holes in it — think of the amazing comics available now or there wasn’t a robust book trade back then or whatever, both of which are valid points — the more I realize such arguments are beside the point. The mainstream North American comic book industry was in better shape 30-odd years ago than it is today.

On the face of it, that’s relatively obvious: both Marvel and DC were in dominant mode, in terms of both market share but also output: beyond their core superhero comics, both publishers had additional imprints or titles dedicated to promoting different material that just don’t exist at either publisher anymore; Marvel, always the more conservative company, had Epic Comics and the Marvel Graphic Novels line, which regularly featured creator owned new concepts from Marvel talent, while DC had the Berger books, Piranha Press, it’s own graphic novels line, and random, wonderful oddities like Wasteland or Angel Love or Outcasts.

There was also a far healthier indie scene than we have today, I’d argue, with publishers like First Comics and Eclipse Comics acting in a similar manner to today’s Image Comics but with less of a focus on potential media adaptation and more willingness to experiment and challenge its creators as well as readers. Companies like Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink Press were around to offer alternatives to superheroes in terms of action/adventure strips, and Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, and others (including, again, Kitchen Sink!) were there with more alternative, artcomix material, too.

And what’s more, what’s the thing I keep coming back to is, there wasn’t the naked, blunt focus on the bottom line — whether corporate parents or potential movie or TV deals — that feels omnipresent in today’s industry. Everyone had to stay profitable, of course, but there was still, almost across the board, a willingness — an eagerness — to play and occasionally make dumb decisions for good reasons that just feels absent in today’s market.

Like I said before; there’s probably some element of nostalgia present in all of this, and certainly there are audiences and demographics better served now than way back then. But creatively, I can’t help but feel that the North American comics mainstream was far better off in the good old days. Does this make me old, or just right…?