The Path, Taken

For no immediately apparent reason the other night, I started thinking about the final year of my undergraduate art school program. Like I said, I’m really not sure why; I was falling asleep, and it just happened, as if my brain went, hey, this was more than a quarter century ago, why not start thinking about it now? Reader, I did. I was falling asleep and suggestible, what can I tell you?

Specifically, I was thinking about my dissertation that made up some significant portion of my final grade that I can’t remember — a quarter? That can’t be right, but it feels like it might be, nonetheless — and how I basically half-assed it. I got a pretty good final grade for my degree, good enough that I felt accomplished and relieved in equal measure when finally learning what it was, but I remember being told in an offhand manner by one of my teachers that my dissertation had dragged it down, and what’s more, I remember hearing that and thinking in response, yeah, that makes sense.

The irony of the whole situation from today’s point of view is that I screwed up the dissertation purely because I didn’t want to write. I had countless, multiple chances to work on the thing, but I’d spend them doing almost anything else until I had no other option. To this day, almost exactly 26 years later (I basically wrote the whole thing in a blur across the Christmas break), I remember with shocking clarity the feeling of sitting down to just do it with a combination of stress and resignation, as if I’d run out of chances to avoid doing it.

Looking back now, I think about how short the word count was (10-15,000 words) and how difficult it felt to get them out of me at the time. I was, ironically, less than a year away from realizing that maybe I wanted to be a writer, but if you’d asked me at the time, that would have seemed almost impossible.

Ooh Ooh Hoo No

Sometimes, I think about what I left behind to move to the US.

I mean that in a literal way, instead of a metaphorical one. I’ve been thinking about the physical possessions I left behind a bunch lately, in part because I’ve been re-buying some of them from eBay across the past year or so. Not in any kind of organized, “I’m rebuilding my comic and book collection and this is my plan,” way; it is, as is my tradition, far more haphazard and unintentional than anything like that. I think we’d all expect no less.

I’m not buying everything over again, thankfully; there were no shortage of books, records, comics, and whatever I once owned that I have little desire to revisit in the slightest, never mind re-purchase. (Just remembering the tower of Empire magazines I had gives me no shortage of anxiety, as much as I long for the days of longform entertainment magazine writing.) But as I grow older and think about the mass of media that I didn’t just live through but were a fan of, I find myself wishing that I hadn’t left basically everything I’d known entirely behind when I moved continents. Couldn’t I have had a plan to keep things in storage and move them eventually…? I had a near-complete run of Deadline, for God’s sake. Do you know how expensive that kind of thing is to buy nowadays?

I left it all behind to start anew, under the impression that I wouldn’t want or need much or all of it. Looking back now, that feels like an early warning sign of how that relationship would turn out — the suggestion (as was the case for many years) that I limit any comic or book collection because it wasn’t important enough to make space for, and there were more important things to focus on.

I guess we ended on the metaphor after all; I left parts of me behind when I left all those stories and magazines and books and pages of other people’s words. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I should have been paying attention to why I was doing it, and what it would mean, years down the line.

Or maybe I’m just bitter at the price of Green Lantern Corps #201, all these years later.

Byeeeeee

What was funny about recording the last episode of Wait, What? was how not-sad I was during the whole thing. I was even aware of that in the moment, the lack of sadness and sorrow during the final recording session. I’m pretty sure I even called it out in the recording itself.

I’d certainly expected to be sad, ahead of that. It had been a running theme when talking about it in the run-up to that final recording; I’d make some kind of comment along the lines of, “oh, we’ll both be messes in the last one, we won’t know what to say,” and I meant that entirely sincerely. Even on the day of the recording itself, it weighed on me; I felt this sadness on my shoulders hours ahead of sitting down to actually do it, all too aware of it being The Last One.

The podcast, after all, had been a constant in my life for more than a decade. It was one of the few things that had survived the upheaval of 2018, when everything else in my life to that point had gone; indeed, some of the strongest memories of the initial weeks after leaving my marriage was actually talking to Jeff and recording the podcast. For a show that was, ostensibly, just two friends talking casually about comics and culture, Wait, What? had this immense importance in my personal cosmology.

Jeff was the one who suggested ending it, months earlier, expecting me to disagree. I didn’t, although it took awhile for both of us to finally, properly settle on the idea that we were actually going to go through with it. For awhile, it felt like a dare each of us was expecting the other to back away from: were we really going to do it? Was it really going to happen?

It’s a few weeks later now, and the loss hasn’t sunk in yet. The holidays happened immediately after to distract us from the muscle memory of sitting down to chat for two or three hours every Saturday evening. We’ll still be calling and chatting anyway, just without recording it, which makes the loss infinitely easier — it’s probably why I didn’t feel the sadness when recording that last episode — but nonetheless, I know something has been lost. I’ll feel it when I least expect it, I can tell.

Exciting News For Our Readers

This is a weird one, but in keeping with my original plan for this site being a repository for things I didn’t put elsewhere. Below is the written-but-never-sent-for-technical-reasons (no, really; the site was down on the day it was supposed to go out) final edition of the Comics, FYI newsletter, from July of this year. Preserved for historical purposes, and a fun look back (for me, at least) about where my head was at in the summer before I started at Popverse full-time.

To a certain generation of British comic book readers, the phrase “Exciting News For Our Readers” (or variations on the same; sometimes it would “Great News”) had a chilling effect whenever it appeared on the cover of one of their favorite titles, because it was generally understood to be a coded way of announcing that the comic in question had been canceled.

Okay, that’s perhaps a little reductive; British comics of the late 20th century were rarely outright canceled, after all. Instead, the practice was to take two or three of the most popular strips from the title – almost every UK comic was an anthology, filled with multiple strips and characters running anywhere from one to eight pages per issue – and place them in another comic, which would add the canceled title’s logo to its cover for a brief period in an attempt to lure in some new readers who’d been following along with the now-gone comic. The “Exciting News” for readers was that two of their favorite comics were now teaming up to become one all-killer, no-filler title, in theory.

To be fair, it was this practice – referred to by those in the industry as “Hatch, Match, and Dispatch,” for reasonably obvious reasons* – that resulted in the addition of Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters to 2000 AD back in the day, both of which now considered essential parts of the beloved anthology’s DNA even though they originated in the short lived title Star Lord, so it’s clearly something that did what it was supposed to. Similarly, other classics like The Thirteenth Floor** long outlived their original homes thanks to this strategy, finding new fandoms in the process.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because I, too, have some Exciting News For My Readers: this is the last edition of the newsletter for the foreseeable future. Sorry, all. (Especially those who just signed up in the last few days, which turns out to be a surprisingly high number for some reason. Read the archives, at least?) Here’s the “exciting” part of things, though: as of next week, I’m going to be a staff writer for ReedPop’s Popverse site, where I’ll be doing more of the kinds of things I’ve been doing here, and more besides.

~~~

As I said back in the first newsletter in January, I started this as much as anything for a chance to do the type of writing that I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to do anymore after leaving THR’s Heat Vision blog as a regular contributor***. What I didn’t expect to happen at the time was that a number of different things would happen very quickly after that email went out, including the first in a number of calls with Popverse editor Chris Arrant where we talked about what comics journalism could be, what it used to be – look, we’re both old – and the potential for what at the time was a secret, mystery thing that Chris was planning that turned out to be Popverse. (He really kept things under wraps for an impressively long time.)

While all that was happening, the newsletter quickly grew into something I enjoyed doing – and something that felt as if it could actually provide some kind of service to readers, at least to the extent that anything in comics journalism is necessarily capable of. (I’m old enough to be simultaneously cynical and optimistic about such things, I confess.) I say that as much as anything to let you know that deciding to put this newsletter on indefinite hiatus isn’t something I took lightly, nor something that I haven’t gone back and forth about a bunch of time in the last week or so as the Popverse gig came together. (It’s still coming together; I have a bunch of paperwork to fill in after I send this out. As someone who’s been freelance for more than a decade, I’d forgotten quite how much paperwork was required for such things.)

There are a number of stories I’d planned for future newsletters – a number that I’d started to report and even write up, only to put aside while waiting on more information or final quotes or whatever – that will, I suspect, end up as stories on Popverse****; there are a number of developing and/or unfinished stories to follow up on that I’m sure I’ll be pursuing there, as well. Basically, while this newsletter is taking a nap, almost everything that you would find here, you’ll find there, and more.

I still have a lot of love for the newsletter format, and think there’s a lot of potential to be unlocked in news delivery this way; I’m purposefully looking at this as an “indefinite hiatus,” if only because I reserve the right to resurrect this at a later date, dammit (or else use this for sneaky mailings when everyone least expects it; don’t be that surprised if it happens). For now, though – well, as of Monday – anyone looking for me should be taking a look over at Popverse.

* The hatching was the creation of new titles in the first place, in case you’re wondering.

** The Thirteenth Floor is a British horror strip that should be far better known than it is; created by Judge Dredd’s John Wagner and Alan Grant, and featuring stunning art from Jose Ortiz, it’s essentially the 1970s Wrath of the Spectre concept with a twist, as a sentient (and sentimental, albeit also sociopathic) computer called Max protects working class folk from bullies of all sorts via a supernatural floor that can bring people’s nightmares to life. It’s genuinely amazing stuff.

*** I also said in that first newsletter that I was planning on this eventually turned into a paid newsletter, which clearly didn’t happen; I think that was for the best, in the end.

**** I’d planned on doing a lot more interviews and profiles for the newsletter that just didn’t happen for all kinds of reasons. Expect more of that on Popverse too.

~~~

Meanwhile, panels for this year’s San Diego Comic-Con have started to be rolled out – both on Comic-Con’s own website, and via promotional emails from those organizing said panels – and not only am I at the show, I’m on no less than three panels this year:

Comics Journalism: Newsletters and TikTok and Blogs, Oh My! Thursday July 21 at 5:00pm, Room 23ABC

The world of writing about comics is changing yet again, with new ventures appearing, old formats arising again, and all new ones finding innovative ways to talk about comics, from Substack to TikTok and back. Heidi MacDonald (The Beat) joins Chris Arrant (PopVerse), Graeme McMillan (Comics, FYI), Joelle Monique (IHeartRadio), Barbra Dillon (Fanbase Press), and others for their annual discussion of the state of comics journalism.

Adapting the World of Blade Runner for Comics Friday July 22 at 2:00pm, Room 29AB

Titan’s critically acclaimed and beloved Blade Runner comics series returns! Blade Runner Origins co-writer K. Perkins (Paper Girls, Batwoman) and Blade Runner 2029 writer Mike Johnson discuss with journalist Graeme McMillan adapting and expanding the classic neo-noir world for comics.

Image Comics: The Secrets Behind Captivating Comics Storytelling Sunday July 24 at 11:30am, Room 10

A freewheeling conversation between Marcia Chen (Lady Mechanika), Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika), Erica Schultz (The Deadliest Bouquet), Tina Horn (SFSX), and Wyatt Kennedy (Bolero). Moderated by Graeme McMillan.

The first Comic-Con I ever did was to do the Comics Journalism panel, back when I was doing Fanboy Rampage!!! (That was… maybe 18 or 19 years ago at this point?) Time is a flat circle, I guess…? Anyway: I’ll bet at Comic-Con! Come see my panels but keep your distance because Covid.

Got My Mind Made Up I Got My Finger On The Button

I missed the 25th anniversary of In It For The Money, the Supergrass album, earlier this year — apparently, it was in April, now that I’ve thought about it enough to go check — but even just thinking about its release and where my life was at at the time has had me thinking over the last few days.

In April 1997, I was speeding towards the end of my BA course in art school, and filled with no small amount of panic about the fact. I had no real idea what I was going to do next — I’m sure that I must have already interviewed about continuing into a Masters degree by that point, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have known that I’d gotten in — and, equally, no real idea about what I was truly working towards with the final exhibition that was going to make up the majority of my final grade. That spring, I was in mild panic the entire time.

I was, however, still a music fan and someone who obsessively went to record stores every week to check out the new releases and see what was happening. I remember being into the first couple of singles from In It For The Money, and convinced with the confidence of someone who genuinely knows no better that the full album would be integral to getting my work done in a timely, successful manner. So, I bought it.

I can still remember the sheer panic I felt when going to the bank immediately afterwards and realizing that I’d accidentally spent the last of my money on the album, and wouldn’t be able to buy food as a result. I am, thankfully, far more financially solvent today, but I’ll never ever forget what that felt like; the sense of regret, of panic, and of suddenly being aware of the value of things. Or, more accurately, the lack of value of other things.

In It For The Money, ironically, didn’t even come close to living up to those first two singles. I should’ve bought some groceries instead.

And The Drop Beat Sounds Like This

I’ve been thinking about mixtapes, recently. Not in the sense that the term is currently used — I’m not about to drop my debut and reveal previously unknown skill on the mic, I’m sad to say — nor, really, in the same nostalgic sense that many have about choosing the perfect tracks and putting them in the right order, so as to convince your target audience of your desired message; instead, I’ve been thinking about the actual, physical act of making those tapes in the first place. The sitting down and building the mix, song by song, hitting record on each and every track.

(Not every mixtape had some deep message behind it, of course; I can remember making tapes for myself and others that had no meaning deeper than these songs are cool, maybe you’ll like them too and that was more than enough. Of course, plenty of that tapes I made did have ulterior motives, because that was the language we all shared and spoke, even if it was an entirely unstated agreement between us all at the time.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the actual act of making the tapes. The fact that I’d choose the songs — taking great care to sequence them right, listening to the start of each potential new track to convince myself that it fit — with great care, and then hit the pause button to start recording in time for the song to start. I’ve been thinking about how all of this was live, which meant that any mistake — a skip in the record, the CD jumping, whatever — was part of the tape itself, and how that didn’t feel as scary then as it somehow does now, in an age of making playlists digitally with everything clean and controlled. 

There was an element of… chaos, perhaps…? An element of surrender to the process, acceptance that messiness and imperfection was part of the plan, that was central to making a mixtape back in the day. A lack of control but a comfort with that, too. I need to get my head back to that space again, I think. Sometimes a record skips; it can still sound like music.

Cheap Holidays In

Having recently watched — and, seemingly unlike many critics, really enjoyed — Danny Boyle’s Pistol, the TV adaptation of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir of the origins of the band, I’ve been thinking about the Sex Pistols reunion of the 1990s, and what it meant at the time.

I can’t remember if the band got back together for just a couple of gigs or a full-blown tour, but I remember that whatever it was, it went under the umbrella title of Filthy Lucre as a way of deflecting and embracing the obvious criticism that it was all being done for the money.

It was, of course — me and some friends pooled our dwindling resources to buy tickets to give to my best friend at the time, who was a massive Pistols fan, and I can remember feeling at once impressed and terrified by how expensive those tickets were; this was all of the Pistols selling out by getting back together, but ensuring that they were selling their credibility for as much of your money as possible. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated,” indeed.

Traditionally, I’m cool on the idea of selling out in general: there’s usually more behind the situation than anyone else sees, and sometimes you simply have to do whatever to keep the lights on. The very idea of “selling out” feels as if it comes from people who’ve never truly worried about money, overvaluing a concept of artistic freedom they’ve made up in their minds. With the Pistols, though…

I remember there being legitimate anger at the band for doing it, for tarnishing their reputations in that kind of way. It reminds me of much of the objections to Pistol, for that matter — this notion that the Sex Pistols are somehow sacrosanct and should be deified for their role in the punk scene, instead of treated like real people. How dare they get back together, and reveal themselves as imperfect? Why couldn’t they just allow the legend that had built around them to remain unsullied?

Except that was the point, maybe even as much as the money. I remember the friend telling me, after the gig, that it was fun but also disappointing, because they could play their instruments and it felt like a regular concert. It was the final true punk move they could make: making their most devoted fans face up to the fact that they’d been jobbing musicians all along, instead of antichrists here to change the world.

And The Tenderness I Feel

My latest obsession may be a book I bought roughly a quarter of a century ago, and what my memory has done to it. It’s not the book itself — The Mystery Play, a hardcover graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth that has pretty much faded from institutional memory, arguably for good reason — that’s important here, I hasten to add, but specifically the actual physical copy I bought of it, all those years ago.

(I just went and looked it up; this was all closer to 30 years back. The book came out in 1994. I’m old, now.)

I was a student at the time, and one who didn’t have a lot of money. New hardcover books weren’t something I bought on a regular basis if ever, but I was a massive Morrison fan, so the prospect of an all-new Morrison book — and painted by Muth, whose work I’d loved for years! — proved irresistible. I plunked down my money on the counter and took away the shrink wrapped copy from the local comic shop excitedly.

I remember going almost immediately to a local coffee shop, where I opened the shrink wrap nervously but excitedly, and discovered that the dustcover had one small, clean cut across the front, as if someone had sliced it open with a razor blade. I knew, on some level, that it must have been a printing defect, because the book had been shrink wrapped, but still; the cut fascinated me. Even as I read through the book, I’d pause periodically and close the book, running my finger over the cut as if it had a deeper meaning.

Remembering the book for the first time in literally decades the other week, I realized that I couldn’t recall anything about the plot of The Mystery Play, or what Muth’s art for the book looked like, but I could (and did) remember everything about that cut: the size, the placement on the dustcover, my need to repeatedly look at it, study it. My relationship with that book is, somehow, actually a relationship with that cut.

What that says about me, I don’t know nor care to find out.

It’s Brilliant, Anyway

Every July 4, I remember my first Independence Day as an American citizen, and the way in which circumstances and my bosses at the time had conspired to make sure that, not only would I actually be working that day, but that I’d lose one of my regular days off that week in addition for reasons to arcane to articulate beyond, simply, “it came down to them or me, and they chose them.”

I remember the stinging feeling at the time, the sense of injustice that I felt with such clarity and sublimated anger, about the fact that I was finally a fully-fledged, naturalized and the whole shebang, citizen of the United States of America, and yet here I was being forced to work on the biggest damn holiday of the year that wasn’t Christmas or Thanksgiving — even though, back then, I didn’t really get Thanksgiving on any emotional level. (I still don’t, not really; I’m pretty convinced it’s something you need to have grown up with in order to fully appreciate, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Looking back at it today, I feel… embarrassed, perhaps…? about the whole thing, and how self-righteous I was in my upset. How naive I was, too, in being surprised that a decision had been made to put me to work instead of others sacrificing their own time off, and how self-centered it was to think that my first July 4th as an American citizen meant anything to anyone that wasn’t me. It’s something I go back to in my head periodically, as a reminder to keep myself in check and try to keep a sense of perspective about whatever’s happening to me: do you really want this to happen again? and so on.

I didn’t realize it at the time, and wouldn’t for a few years, but thinking about it now, being forced to work on a day you want to spend as a vacation, and being reminded that your bosses are your bosses and not your friends feels like a central part of the American experience, sadly. It was, if nothing else, unfortunately fitting.

Happy Independence Day.

Making Plans For The Holidays

I was reminded, via a random tweet recently, about a Christmas tradition from my childhood that I’d entirely forgotten about, and which feels as if it recasts the Christmases I’d experienced then, compared with how I remember them today.

Back in the day, my family would know that the holiday season was officially underway by the fact that the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times had been released; as the names almost suggest, both magazines were filled with television listings for the next week or so for different channels. (You can tell this is back in the day; all the BBC listings were in the Radio Times, which mixed BBC TV and radio listings, while the TV Times was filled with upcoming listings for ITV and Channel 4; other networks didn’t even exist at the time, so we didn’t have to worry about those.)

When those listings magazines were released, they were attacked by my family, or at least the three kids; we’d go through them, day-by-day, and mark down the shows we wanted to see. The three of us would use different colored highlighter pens to differentiate what was a me show, versus one of my sisters’, and vice versa. Anything that more than one of us wanted to watch, as far as I can remember, would be claimed by whoever went through the magazine first. (Almost certainly me, as the youngest.)

What’s surprising about this, for me, is how important the television was for the season. I’m not exaggerating this, even though I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t really remember this until someone tweeted a picture of this year’s Radio Times; the arrival of these listing magazines really did feel like a signifier that the holidays were now, properly, underway. Knowing what I was going to be watching, and when, somehow, meant that the Christmas period was in a shape that I understood and could plan for.

It’s not really the same, scrolling through Netflix and HBO Max these days. Maybe if someone made a listings magazine to help…